Saturday, 20 January 2018

Reducing fruit and vegetable packaging: an easy win!

So many people go shopping for fruit and vegetables without thinking. We've all done it, putting everything in a separate plastic bag: pumpkin, cucumber, leek,… and why? 

I bought a spaghetti squash the other day, at a local greengrocer. I was carrying my own bags, he could see that. Yet, he wrapped the squash in a plastic bag before handing it to me.

Another thing: my husband came home from the supermarket the other day, with a picture of a plastic tray, the size of more or less half a litre of water. In it was a piece of ginger of 80 grams. It was priced at 1.99 EUR, the price of ginger being 24.88 EUR/kilo!!!

The shop next door, a local greengrocer, was selling ginger in bulk at 2.95 EUR/kilo.

Putting 2 and 2 together, this means 80 grams of ginger (the price in bulk being 2.95 EUR/kilo) costs 0.236 EUR, the price of the packaging being 1.754 EUR! And we are all buying it (pun intended)! Why?

So much for the price we are willing to pay for waste. 

How about the volume of plastic? The packaging of fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry and fish takes up most of our bin space.

To compare it on a weekly basis, I went shopping for fruit and veg in the supermarket. I brought back this lot:

I admit, they do look yummy. Then I took out all of the food and left the packaging on the same table:

Not that yummy anymore, is it? You are looking at 131 grams of waste, 75 grams of which is plastic (for a family of 2). That is 3.406 kilos of waste per year per person or 34.06 kilo per person per 10 years!

One week later, I did the same shopping at the greengrocer around the corner:

And this is only the packaging:

Better! You are looking at 18 grams of waste, 9 grams of which is plastic (for a family of 2)! That is 0.468 kilos of waste per year per person or 4.68 kilo per person per 10 years!

I also compared the price. For 2 avocados, 1 kg of kiwi fruit, 1 cucumber, 1 kg of nectarines, 1 bunch of radish, 400 grams of lettuce, 760 g of vine tomatoes, 3 peppers, 500 grams of red onions, 500 grams of white onions and 1 kg of mandarins, I paid 27.01 EUR at the supermarket and 18.78 EUR at the local greengrocer’s. The supermarket is 43% more expensive!

What issues have I encountered shopping at the local greengrocer?

1.   In the supermarket, I can buy leaf lettuce ready for consumption. The lettuce from the greengrocer’s I have to clean myself. I don’t mind washing my own lettuce but I love the young lettuce leaves, which are only sold in plastic bags, sometimes even in a plastic box and then wrapped in a plastic bag! During the summer, I might try growing my own young lettuce leaves on the rooftop, although we live in a fairly polluted part of town. I might not be doing us any favours. I will think about it.

2.   The tomatoes on the vine need to be put in a bag or they will roll all over the counter when you check out. The reason is that the local greengrocer’s vegetables are a lot riper than those of the supermarket. So, the first time I passed the check out, it was quite embarrassing. But a solution has been found! See below. The fact that all vegetables are a lot riper also means that I cannot always buy vegetables for a whole week. I might have to shop twice.

3.   The local greengrocer doesn’t always have what I want. For ordinary food shopping, that is acceptable. For dinner parties, I might have to go a shop where I know I will find what I need. This may need some planning in advance, but that’s OK.

4.   The local greengrocer’s assortment of goods is limited. I can do all of my weekly shopping at the supermarket. I can’t do all of my shopping at the greengrocer’s. For instance, he doesn’t sell meat and fish, the spreads we are used to. I will still have to visit other shops to do all of my weekly shopping.

So how did we solve the problem that some fruit and vegetables, like beans, vine tomatoes, mandarins still need a bag to keep them together?

One of my neighbours came up with the solution. She is a blogger herself and blogs about all sorts of things, including the environment. You can find her blog here. She showed me the vegetables shopping bags that she had bought online. I bought a packet of 5 bags.

They are nylon, that’s not so good, but they can and will be used a lot more often than the single-use plastic bags you find in the shops themselves. We started using them but we do have to remind ourselves not to forget them before we leave the house. It is a habit we have to grow into.

And we have left the house without these bags, and it will happen again. But we are slowly getting there. When we forget the bags, we try to put as many fruit and veg into the same bag. In the supermarket, if you have to weigh your fruit and veg, we put the stickers all on 1 bag or even on the packaging of another product we buy.

If they sell cucumber individually wrapped in plastic, we’re not eating cucumber that week, full stop. If they don’t sell aubergine without plastic, we will try another shop first. On some weeks, all the greengrocers only sell packed aubergine, on some weeks they don’t. I guess they all buy at the same wholesale market.

By doing this, we have been able to hold onto our bin 3 times longer than before! We used to put out a 60 litre bin liner every week. Now, we put one out every 3 weeks!

That has also required us to find a solution about food waste itself, because that makes the bin smelly. My kind neighbour Monique has offered her green container and compost barrel for us to put our degradable food waste in.  More about that in another chapter.

So the balance of this project:

Environmental impact
On a yearly basis, we used to produce 3.4 kg of waste per person or 6.8 kg for the both of us.

Now, with my little fruit & veg nylon shopping bags, I buy basically plastic-free, with the exception of young lettuce leaves and mushrooms (which you can hardly find without plastic). I don’t know how much that will be but let’s take a conservative 0.4 kg/year per person or 0.8 kg/year for 2 people.

That is a total reduction of 6.0 kg/year for 2 people.

Financial impact
Based on this one experiment, fruit and veg is 43% cheaper. This will not always be the case. It very much depends on the season and what I need that week but on average, the local greengrocer is much cheaper. Let’s assume a comfortable 30% difference.

The 5 little bags were an investment of 12 EUR. I don’t know how long they will last, but they don’t show any signs of wear and tear yet. When they are worn out, I will buy cotton ones.

The investment not included, this is a positive balance (at a price difference of 30%) of more than 400 EUR /year.

Space impact
We gain the space of the empty (and always messy) plastic bags stock.
We lose the space of the 5 fruit & veg bags...

Time and effort impact
We lose time because we cannot do all of our shopping at the local greengrocer. I still have to go to the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger…

Also the fruit & veg sold at the local greengrocer doesn’t always last a week, which means I might have to shop more frequently.

Another “loss” is that the local greengrocer does not always have what I want or need when I want to cook something special. I sometimes have to go back to the supermarket for special mushrooms, fresher beans, etc.

Balance: apart from the effort, a big “win”.

Next post: coffee and tea! 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Plastic bottles: recycling is good, reducing is better!

 Plastic bottles take 450 to 1000 years to biodegrade. PET or PETE bottles never biodegrade.

A 1 litre bottle of my favourite still water costs on average 0.58 EUR. An empty bottle weighs 25 g. My husband and I drink 1 litre of water a day each, easily. With bottled water, that would costs us 423.40 EUR a year. That also leaves us with 730 empty plastic bottles of 25g each. A total of 18.25 kg of plastic a year!

If we drank 730 litres of tap water, that would cost us 3.38 EUR. That is not a typo! Bottled water is 125 times more expensive than tap water!

So there we are, and tap water it will be from now on! The problem is: we don’t like its taste. So let’s find affordable ways to improve it.

In 2013 a Belgian consumer magazine, Test Aankoop, has tested 40 samples of tap water all over Belgium. The outcome was that our tap water is generally safe and healthy. No old pollutants (nitrates, pesticides,…) were found in alarming quantities. Also hardly any new pollutants (antibiotics residue, hormones,…) were found. So it is safe and healthy, I believe that.

But I still don’t like its taste. In 2015, tap water was tested for a radio programme. A water sommelier was asked to blind taste and identified tap water immediately. So those who claim that the taste of tap water and bottled water is the same are wrong.

The taste of tap water is mainly caused by the chlorine they add to keep it free from bacteria. Also the amount of calcium and magnesium in water can influence its taste and its hardness. And of course there are tens of other pollutants in tap water, maybe not harmful ones, but they do have an impact on its taste.

The term ‘water hardness’ refers to the amount of calcium and magnesium salts in water and is expressed in French degrees (°F) or German degrees (°D). These salts are necessary for our health, but they do cause calcification of our household equipment (kettles, coffee maker, washing machines,…). On a scale of 0 to over 50, water hardness in Antwerp is between 17.7 and 18.3 French degrees, 0 degrees being very soft, 50 degrees and higher being ultrahard. So the water coming out of our taps in Antwerp is fairly soft. Nothing to worry about there. We don’t need to put an expensive water softening device at the entrance of our house.

Heavy metals can also be found in tap water. A 2016 analysis of Antwerp tap water did not show any alarming heavy metal levels. Lead can still end up in your own tap water if the original water pipes in your house have not yet been replaced. I’ve checked ours, they have been replaced recently by copper ones, so no problem there.

With this information about our own tap water, I started looking for a filtering system that could enhance its taste. I studied Brita filters, ceramic pipes and activated carbon sticks.

1.    Brita filters

Brita, the obvious choice. Or is it? Most reactions I had on the first post of this blog were “we use a Brita filter”. We contemplated buying one but we didn’t. And here is why.

Brita uses a double filtration system: (i) silver-impregnated activated carbon and (ii) ion-exchange resin. That is a mouthful, I know.

·         The activated carbon removes substances that may impair taste, such as chlorine and chlorine compounds.

·         The ion exchange resin reduces the carbonate hardness (limescale), accordingly softening tap water, and reduces metals, such as copper and lead, that can occur as a result of domestic installation.

The silver in the filters is used to slow down any bacterial growth, but in itself, the silver is not entirely harmless, according to the World Health Organisation. For that reason, large water treatment plants do not use silver but ultraviolet light to control bacterial growth.

The Brita pitcher itself is styrene methyl methacrylate copolymer. There are several types of pitchers so for the sake of this exercise, I’m just picking one out randomly. It costs about 21.50 EUR.

It is recommended to change the filter every month. This will cost you some 76.90 EUR/year.

On a yearly basis, this is:

·         12 filters: 76.90 EUR
·         730 litres of tap water: 3.38 EUR

This totals an initial investment of 21.50 EUR and a running cost of 80.28 EUR/year.

Pros: your water is filtered instantly. It is relatively cheap. The filter is 100% recyclable, every single element, from the plastic to the activated carbon and ion exchanger, but you have to take it back to the shop. Recyclable is not the same as recycled!

Cons: microbes can still accumulate in the filter. Silver is used to slow that process down. Tiny silver particles will then end up in your water.

I contacted Brita directly with the question: what is the percentage of filters sold, that are actually returned to the collection points for recycling. (I did not ask how many filters are being recycled!) Until today, I have not yet had a reply from them.  Therefore, I have to assume that not many filters are returned for recycling.


2.    Activated carbon sticks

Activated carbon is a form of carbon processed to have small, low-volume pores that increase the surface area available for adsorption or chemical reactions. It is part of the filtration system of a Brita filter. It is used worldwide in all sorts of applications. Again, a mouthful…

Activated carbon traps toxins and chemicals in its millions of tiny pores through adsorption. Adsorption is the chemical reaction where elements bind to a surface.

Because it is so porous, one gram of activated carbon can have a surface area of 500 m2 to over 3000 m²! The surface of activated carbon has a negative electric charge that causes positive charged toxins and gas to bond with it. For instance, active carbon is used for emergency toxin removal on patients that have overdosed through ingestion.

The activated carbon sticks are made from oak branches. Brita filters also have activated carbon but made from coconut.

The difference between a Brita filter and activated carbon is that, first of all, there is no silver involved when you use carbon sticks. Secondly, when using a Brita filter, the water is filtered immediately when it runs through the filter. The carbon sticks are placed directly in the water and need some time to do their job. But the longer you keep the stick in the water, the more metals and toxins it will adsorb.
When the stick loses its carbon activity, you boil it for 10 minutes. After 4 months, you put them at the bottom of your flower pots. They are 100% biodegradable.

Please do not use barbecue charcoal! 

Investment: a glass jar. You can find glass jars for any budget. Ours cost 14.99 EUR.
Running cost: 4 sticks cost you 17 EUR. You can do a year with 4 sticks. 700 litres of tap water: 3.38 EUR

Pro: they are fully biodegradable, the sticks don’t take up any space in your fridge or cupboard. You keep them in your water jar.

Con: it is only available in Japan or Taiwan for the moment. Since activated carbon is used all over the world for filtering and detoxing, I hope that the carbon sticks will be available in Belgium soon so we don’t have to fly them in from Japan. They do have their own carbon footprint at the moment!

3.    Ceramic pipes


Ceramic pipes can be used for a variety of things (swimming pools, bathtubs, coffee makers, water jars. They never need to be replaced. I can’t really find how it works on the internet but it is supposed to vitalise water, increase the energy of water, evaporate chlorine, reduce oxidation, reduce infrared radiation, reduce surface tension, break up large clusters of water molecules, break down water pollution and increase the transport of nutrients.

I don’t have a clue what all that means!  I’ll believe it. I have seen it in fish tanks and other applications. 

According to one website on ceramics water filtration: “Ceramic water filters work by simply allowing the water to seep through tens of millions of pores in the water cartridge surface. In the process, organic and inorganic particulates too large to pass through (often anything larger than 0.5 micron) accumulate on the ceramic surface.

So I am not sure how you use the pipes without filtration system. If you just put them in a jar, the water does not “seep through”.

Investment: 500 grams of ceramics pipes cost 34.95 EUR. And of course a jar.
Running cost: 730 litres of tap water: 3.38 EUR/year.

4.    So, which decision did we take?

Somehow the image of the fish tank inhibits me from trying the ceramic pipes, even though it is the cheapest solution. Also, I think I wouldn’t be able to stand the rattling noise of the pipes in a glass jar. And of course, the fact that I don’t really know how it works.

As we don’t have heavy metals in our tap water, and our water is relatively soft, we don’t really the ion exchanger that the Brita filter has. Also, we have a family of 2, so we don’t really need the instant filtering system. Brita is not our first choice. We decided to go for the activated carbon sticks. We keep 2 sticks in a glass jar in the fridge and 1 stick in reusable plastic bottles on the bedside table. We bought 4 colourful reusable bottles, so we can take them along on trips, holidays and concerts (if allowed).

If you have a Brita filtering system, remember that you can take the used filters back to the shop.

5.    The impact

Environmental impact
I have a big water tank in the office so this calculation is a bit hypothetical. We do think that we drink at least 730 litres of water a year. That is underestimated rather than overestimated.

Now we use 4 carbon sticks. They are flown in from Japan and are wrapped in a cellophane sheet.

That is a total reduction of (a hypothetical) 730 plastic bottles/year (wrapped per 6 in additional plastic). That is at least 18.25 kg of plastic, against 1 cellophane sheet.

Financial impact
730 hypothetical plastic water bottles a year cost 423.40 EUR/year.
The carbon stick solution costs 17 + 3.38 EUR/year + the purchase of one or two water jars and reusable plastic bottles.

The investment not included, this is a positive balance of 423.40 – 20.38 EUR /year: 403.02 EUR.

Space impact
We win the space of the water bottle stock.
We lose nothing because the space taken up by the jars in the fridge were also taken up by the plastic water bottles.

Time and effort impact
We lose once or twice a year we have to go online and order carbon sticks.
We win big time because we don’t have to transport all the bottles from the shop to our house anymore. We have no car so on the bicycle, I can tell you!


Thanks to Mick and Dominique for helping me pull this article together. The next one will be shorter and less technical, I promise!

Next post expected end of December 2017: fruit and vegetable shopping!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Let me shock you with some statistics!

I did it. I held on to all of our waste for an entire month and it was gross! But I did it, and I did it for a good cause. You’re welcome!

Well, I didn’t keep all of it. For instance, I didn’t hold on to food leftovers, Q-tips, kitchen towel, tissues and well… toilet paper.  There are limits!
This is just a snapshot, rather than an average. 

Different seasons produce different waste and sometimes you go through unusual circumstances such as exam periods, lots of work in the office, preparing for holidays and renovations. These periods can come with more waste, just because, for instance, buying ready meals is more convenient than having to cook yourself,…!

For example, we bought a bathroom mirror which came in a big cardboard box of 2.6 kg. Of course this distorts the numbers a bit, but not including it would not be realistic either, because we do buy kitchenware and printers and stuff on the internet all year round, and they all come in boxes. 

I might take more snapshots later during this exercise, just to be able to compare, if I can find new strength to go through this rubbish again!

OK, here we go:

·         Paper and cardboard = 9.28 kg
o    including unsolicited mail = 3.1 kg
o    including the big cardboard box = 2.6 kg

·         Coffee capsules (estimated 4/person/day) = 3.32 kg

o    including (wet) coffee = 2.98 kg
o    Therefore aluminium = 0.34 kg

·         Plastic = 3.7kg

o    including bottles = 2.1 kg (including shampoo and cleaning products)
o    including food packaging = 1.6 kg

·         Drink cartons = 0.7 kg
·         Tin cans = 2.8 kg
·         Other bits (tin, cans, Styrofoam food boxes) = 0.3 kg

Per year that means

·         Total waste= 201.36 kg, including
·         111.36 kg of paper and cardboard
·         44.40 kg of plastic
·         4.03 kg empty coffee capsules

Per 10 years that means

·         Total waste= 2,013.60 kg (more than 2 tonnes!), including
·         1,113.60 kg of paper and cardboard
·         444 kg of plastic
·         40.32 kg empty coffee capsules

Add to this 1 regular bin liner of 60 litres a week. It is made of plastic and weighs 45 grams. That is 2.3 kg of plastic a year, just to get rid of other waste!

Add to this 1 plastic bag to dispose of our plastic bottles, cartons and cans every 3 weeks. It is made of plastic and it weighs 25 grams. That is 433 grams of plastic a year, just to get rid of other plastic!

Are you as disgusted as I am? Good. Let’s change things around!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

“Starting with the man in the mirror” (Michael Jackson)

Why this blog?

Hi, my name is Karine and I am an occasional blogger. That means I blog when I think I’ve got something to say that might be of interest. Or, in this particular case, when I think somebody might have something interesting to say to me!

The purpose of this blog is that my husband and I want to reduce the amounts of waste of our household. We are sick of single-use plastic and cardboard. There are so many of these single-use things, usually plastic: straws, plastic bags, plastic cups,… take-away food has got a lot to answer for…

Lately, plastic and recycling have been in the news so often; videos of turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils go around the world in no time. Every year 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. A couple of years from now, there will be more plastic bottles in the ocean than fish, they say… awareness-raising with these videos is good. But is it good enough?

Can we trust our decision-makers to fix this? Can we trust big companies to do what they tell us they’ll do, like recycling? Too often, it turns out they are just lying to our faces. Apparently, the consumer (that means you and I) doesn’t want to drink from plastic bottles that are not perfectly clear, and recycled bottles aren’t. So first of all: who dares decide this in our place? And secondly, is “not recycling” – and therefore producing and wasting more plastic – the solution? It is time we stopped believing everything big companies and governments feed us. We are too gullible.

Did you know that:

·     Fifty percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw it away?
·        More than one million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide?
·        One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year from plastic in our  oceans?
·         Plastic accounts for around 10 percent of the total waste we generate?
·         And I can keep going for a while…

For my husband and me, spreading videos with shocking statistics on Facebook is no longer good enough. It is time for more action.
Our plan

Our plan is to change our own household waste levels dramatically within a period of 2 years.
To start with, we will live “in sin” for the whole month of September 2017. This means, we will shop the way we have been shopping for years. We’ll buy bottled water, coffee capsules and food packed in plastic and cardboard. We’ll shop as if we don’t care about the environment.

We’ll hold on to all the waste we bring home for a whole month and measure it.

Then we’ll try to reduce it in 10 steps. We have identified 10 areas where we know improvement is needed:

             1.    Bottled water
2.    Food packaging
3.    Beer cans, fruit juice and milk bottles and cartons
4.    Coffee and tea (tough one, we love our capsule coffee)
5.    Plastic plates, cutlery, straws and cups (party stuff)
6.    Paper
7.    Car use
8.    Renovation and recycling
9.    Water and electricity
10.  Travel (another tough one, we love travel)

This list may change and/or get longer as we go along. It will depend on how we experience this exercise and of course, on your input.

For each chapter and each change we implement, we want to calculate:

     1.    Its environmental impact: how much waste can we easily avoid?
     2.    Its financial impact: if we change our ways, what is the impact on our monthly budget?
     3.    Its time impact: if we change our ways, how does it affect our time?
     4.    Its space impact: if we change our ways, how much space do we have more or less in our kitchen?

We will report on the problems we’ve encountered and the solutions we found – or didn’t find – to overcome them. We may and will have to do some research on the way. We know you can’t trust everything on the internet, but we don’t have the funds to do all of our own research. For the sake of this blog, we have to trust what’s out on the internet to some extent.

If you are convinced that what we write is absolutely not true, please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We don’t blog about this because we want to preach, although we secretly hope to inspire many of you. We blog because we want you to tell us what we can do to make this work better, where our calculations do not make sense, which solutions are staring us in the face and yet we can’t see them. 

And don’t get us wrong: we don’t aim for perfection. We can’t guarantee that we will stick to every aspect of this exercise. We will still buy the occasional plastic bottle. We won’t be able to avoid cans of beer at festivals. And, for now, that’s OK for us. 

Are you in?

You might want to give some things a try yourself. You might not because your circumstances are different. Having children or not having children will make a difference. Living in the countryside or in a city will make a difference. The size of your kitchen may make a difference. Let us know what works or doesn’t work for you and why. Other readers might find this useful too.

If you just think this is all about a whole load of rubbish (which actually, is exactly what it is) we suggest you click on the upper right corner’s “X” and leave this page.

Oh, you are still here! Good! So are you in? Then let’s take this journey together!
You can share this blog as much as you want. All we ask from you is to keep your comments friendly, helpful and respectful.

Part 1: bottled water - publication expected by 31 October 2017