Thursday, 31 January 2019

Benchmarking: I dug into the bins again.

The production and recycling of plastic is heavy on the environment. I am not talking about plastic in general but single-use plastic. Plastic is a very useful product for all sorts of applications.

But it is not just the production and recycling that is heavy on the environment. I just learnt that plastic waste releases greenhouse gases whilst decomposing. So those of you who think plastic and climate change are separate things are wrong!

And that is just about the greenhouse gas effect, let’s not forget the horrible sights of waste on beaches and all animals suffering from plastic that has ended up in their habitats.

The good news is that reducing our consumption of plastic (especially single use) is something we can all do, and I am about to prove that to you.

You may remember one of my first blogposts, a snapshot of all our household waste that I had measured in September 2017.

Well, I did it again. I held on to all of our waste for an entire month. I wanted to measure the impact of our efforts. We haven’t finished yet. There is still so much more to do, but I wanted to know where we stand at this moment.

Again, I didn’t keep all waste. For instance, I didn’t hold on to food leftovers, Q-tips, kitchen towel, tissues and well… toilet paper.

Furthermore, 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 for yourself!

While I was collecting waste and saw this amount of plastic growing every day, I didn’t expect the impact of our efforts to be as big as they were.

If you want to know what exactly we did and you don’t want to read all the blogposts again, there is a bullet point list of things you can do at the end of this blogpost.

OK, here we go:

2017 kg/month
2019 kg/month
Difference in percentage

Cardboard and paper
of which unsolicited mail
food packaging
drink cartons
coffee pods

This time, all of our unrecyclable waste of one month fitted into one (1!) 45 gram bin bag. That is 540 grams/year (12 bin bags) instead of 2,340 grams (52 bin bags).

So this is the result of what exactly?

·         Food leftovers are kept out of the bin and are being composted;
·         We have tackled and will keep tackling all unsolicited mail;
·       We don’t buy bottled water anymore. We filter tap water with carbon sticks and we bought a soda stream for soda water;
·         We don’t buy fruit and vegetables in plastic anymore; meat and fish remain a challenge;
·       We squeeze our own fruit juice and fill our own glass bottles at the milk truck every week. In January the truck didn’t show up. That’s why there were still some drink cartons in the statistics. I am looking for a second milk provider;
·         We stopped using coffee pods, at home and in the office (just me);
·       We don’t buy beer cans anymore. We buy beer in glass bottles and take the empties back to the shop.

The two cans in the January statistics are cans I found on my doorstep. They were in fact not ours. I also used 2 cans of corn, which I normally buy in a glass jar, but they were not available when I needed them. Well, I say “needed”. We mostly only think we “need” stuff. Very often this  is actually just “want now”. I could have made something else instead.

So step by step, over a period of 16 months, we have managed to reduce our waste by more than 75%.

And there is still so much more that we can do. I am being fed ideas by people who read my blog - thanks for that! You know who you are.

If you want to find out what these are: stay tuned!

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Coffee: the best result yet!

We can’t deny it: coffee is important in most people’s lives… and in ours. I wake up a lot more slowly without it.

We used to have not one but two Nespresso machines. One at home, one in the office. I loved it. But I’ve figured out lately that I don’t really need Nespresso in the morning. I need caffeine.

The waste that comes with Nespresso (or any other pod coffee) had been bothering me more and more. On a monthly basis, my husband and I would use between 180 to 240 capsules. Per year that would be between 2190 and 2920 capsules!

I sent Nespresso an e-mail asking them how many of the capsules sold are actually returned. (I did not ask them how many of the returned capsules are actually recycled). They referred me to their marketing manager. I re-sent the e-mail to her. No answer! I have to assume that not many are actually returned. On the internet, in an interview with Nespresso I found that it was 25% in 2018, up from 20% in 2016. It’s a start but it is also nowhere near good enough because aluminium can be recycled and Nespresso hands out recycling bags, but they do not encourage recycling in any way.

And the recycling bag itself is made of…. right: plastic!

To their credit, Nespresso is lobbying hard for used capsules to be put in the blue PMD (plastic, metal and drinking cartons) recycling bag but so far, I don’t think it’s allowed.

Assuming that we drink 3 to 4 coffees a day each, that is 6 to 8 pods a day (for the both of us).  A pod holds 5 grams of coffee. Per month, that is 900 to 1200 grams of coffee per month.

Consumption of 6 to 8 pods a day costs 65 to 85 EUR per month. Any alternative will be cheaper than that! Besides, you can order Nespresso online, but they will not send you any recycling bags! For that, you have to go to the shop. Also, you have to take your recycling bags to a collection point, as they do not accept them in the shop.

We decided to try out a couple of alternatives. My husband likes his espresso. I like my long coffee. I decided to go for a French coffee press, he decided to go for an espresso Bialetti percolator. You can use both systems with just coffee; no pods of any kind!!

The glass of my French coffee press broke within a year so instead of replacing it I started drinking my husband’s Bialetti coffee, which is fine. I just add some boiling water to it to get my long coffee. So we both use that now.

The small Bialetti coffee maker cost us 30 EUR. I bought a large one for my husband for Christmas, it was 78 EUR but the lady from the shop said that it was one for life. The Nespresso machine is most definitely not! My first machine broke down after 6 years.

In that same coffee shop (luckily just around the corner), you can buy freshly ground coffee. You can take your own container to the shop and they will fill it with beans, weigh it, then grind it on the spot, straight from the original hessian sack into your container.

They sell different types of coffee. We have tried the following:
Felix (that’s the shopkeeper’s name) and super Felix cost 14 EUR/kilo.
Ethiopian coffee costs 16 EUR/kilo.

We get through ½ kilo per week. That is more than Nespresso but it is considerably cheaper. That takes the coffee bill up to 28 to 32 EUR per month. That is less than half the price of Nespresso. 

In the office, they have recently installed a Nespresso machine. The used pods are picked up by Nespresso. That’s good. But what happens next, I am still not sure about. 
Even though by going back to Nespresso in the office I had to admit that I love it, I have decided today to stop using it. I bought myself a thermos flask that I will fill in the morning with Bialetti coffee and take with me. I can be totally waste-free on coffee so that is what I will do. And even if that means I have to buy more coffee, it will still be cheaper than Nespresso.

For other coffee making solutions such as Senseo, I refer to my blogpost on teabags and all the chemicals that are used to make teabags, in this case the Senseo coffee pods. The same goes for coffee filters. If you don’t want to ingest pesticides, stay away from them!

Environmental impact
We’ve dropped all Nespresso pods and their cardboard box and replaced it by a zero waste – I repeat zero waste – solution from a shop nearby. We take an empty 500g container once a week and they fill it.
Big win!

Financial impact
We purchased 2 Bialetti coffee makers but they are for life. That is a one-off investment of 30 and 78 EUR. I may have to replace the rubber ring in the middle every now and then but it is a lot cheaper than having to replace your Nespresso machine. And it makes excellent coffee; millions of Italians swear by the Bialetti, and they should know.
The coffee we buy now is at least 50% cheaper than the one we used to buy.
Big win!

Space impact
Our two Bialettis take up less space than the Nespresso machines.
The coffee takes up less space than the Nespresso pods.
Big win!

Time and effort impact
Instead of having to go into town to the Nespresso shop (because we did want the recycling bags), we can now go to a local shop and buy it there.
Furthermore, we do not have to take the used pods to the recycling collection point anymore.
Big win!

Next: milk, eggs and fruit juice.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Unexpected recycling ideas

Since we’ve started up this waste reducing business we’ve been keeping our eyes and ears open for recycling opportunities. 

Reducing waste is better, I know, and that is what I am trying to sell you, but sometimes packaging can’t be avoided, at least, not yet. So recycling is the next best thing.

Let me tell you about a couple of nice recycling projects that I’ve found:

Wooden cheese boards

When we have meetings in the office sometimes cheese is ordered in to prevent the participants from starving to death. The cheese is delivered on disposable wooden boards. 

Disposable? Didn’t think so….

I contacted one of my friends who is a painter. She used them as canvases and made these...

Gin bottles

We love our gin & tonic.

My friend who makes the lovely paintings on the cheeseboards stores her paint in…. exactly: 
empty Gordon’s gin bottles. 

Whilst I like a good quality bottle of gin which you can’t always find in the supermarket, sometimes I do have to resort to what’s available in the supermarket.

Knowing that she will recycle the bottle, I know which gin I’ll buy.

Nail varnish

On a Facebook page called ‘free & recycled Antwerp” I found a guy who was looking for old nail varnish which he uses to make little pieces of art. 

I contacted him, and we exchanged old nail varnish for pictures of his artworks.

Candle Wax

I take my old candle wax to a neighbour who turns it into new candles.

Look around you and see if you can find recycling opportunities. I guarantee that it will make you happy!


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Shampoo, soap and the meaning of the word "lush"

A couple of months ago, we had a friend over from Luxemburg. She had read my blog and asked me if I’d heard of Lush products. Nope… never heard of them.

She explained to me that Lush soaps and shampoos are plastic-free. Not only are they sold without a plastic container or wrapping of any kind, the soaps themselves do not contain plastic either.

We googled to see if there was a Lush shop in Antwerp and found one. We visited it the next day. I decided to try a couple of things but I was a bit apprehensive because my skin is “super-sensitive” and soap usually dries it out too much.

I also bought a shampoo/conditioner bar but I was convinced that it was never going to be good enough for my golden locks…. Besides, the shampoo was quite pricey: 11 EUR for a bar.

Anyway I tried it and I never looked back….

The soaps smell delicious. They sell them in big blocks (by weight). You ask them in the shop to cut you off a piece. The variety is enormous. The soaps don’t foam as you use them, but the foam of a block of soap is usually just an added chemical (SDS, sodium dodecyl sulphate, if you really want to know) which is added because people enjoy the foaming. 

Whilst this is true, a lot of people are also allergic to SDS. I recently developed this allergy from the toothpaste that I used. I don’t need SDS, nobody does.

The soaps waiting to be used give your bathroom and the rest of the house a lovely fresh smell. I bought a grill box in IKEA to store them and let the scent fill my house.

The shampoo with conditioner is better than any shampoo I have ever used. I use a lot less of it. Also it is a shampoo with conditioner, so I can drop 2 plastic bottles in one go: shampoo and conditioner. I still use hair oil after washing, but that comes in a glass bottle, with a plastic nozzle, OK, not perfect.

You can buy other products in the Lush shop. They sell their creams in black recyclable pots. If you bring back 4 pots, you get 1 for free. I’ve tried one hair mask but it doesn’t add value to the soap bar. I won’t buy it again.

So having swapped to natural soaps and shampoos, I keep my eyes open to other suppliers. Lush isn’t the only one. I bought some lovely soaps whilst on holiday in Ireland and Crete. Shampoo is a bit more challenging. I bought 2 shampoo bars in Holland recently, but they weren’t anywhere near as good as the Lush ones. So for now, we are lushies!

Environmental impact
We’ve dropped the plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash so a big win. I can’t calculate how much plastic that is on a yearly basis because to do this I’d have to go back to the bottles and I refuse to do that.

Financial impact
I’ve no idea. The soaps and shampoos are more expensive to buy, but they last a lot longer. I’m always ready to go back to the shop and buy more soaps, but they seem to go on forever!

Space impact
No difference. I have to store some soaps and shampoos so I don’t run out, but the soaps make my bathroom and house smell so nice. Plastic bottles don’t do that.

Time and effort impact
I have to go to a separate shop like 3 or 4 times a year, while for soap and shampoo in bottles, I can buy these in the supermarket. I love going to the soap shop, it is always a bit of a treat but it does cost me more time than the supermarket.

Try it. Come on, you want to! 

Monday, 5 November 2018

Update on junk mail: Put yourself on the Robinson list!

I have good news for those who want to get rid of junk mail. I don’t know about countries other than Belgium but I believe it exists in every country.

As I had reported in my previous blogpost on junk mail, I had written letters to several senders of unsolicited mail. A few have written back to me, apologetically and confirming that I would no longer receive unsolicited mail.

One of them wrote me back telling me where they got my address and that, if I no longer wished to receive unsolicited mail, I could register myself on the Robinson list. I have checked it out online ( It exists for mail as well as for phone, but the phone link is not working at the moment due to a recent (and positive) change in the law. 

Did any of you know about this? I sure didn’t!

I have registered both myself and my husband on the Belgian Robinson list. Companies who buy data for direct marketing purposes will no longer get our address for a period of 3 years, after which I will be contacted to ask if I wish to extend my registration.

I am so pleased with this. I will write this nice helpful lady a big thank you!


Sunday, 21 October 2018

How we got rid of junk mail

The amount of unsolicited mail through the door used to be enormous. Supermarkets, pizza take-aways, furniture shops, paint shops, IKEA guides....
Only a fraction of that was useful and even then, most of it is available online. We decided to force this mountain of paper down as efficiently as we could.

I sent some 20 letters to people and businesses asking them – to some gently, and to some more aggressively – to stop sending us junk mail.

I deliberately sent letters by post and not by e-mail to give my message some sense of urgency and importance. Although I don’t usually use paper myself in such situations, I believe a paper letter can have more impact than an e-mail.

1.    The first issue is unaddressed advertising

Article 101 of the Belgian Police Code stipulates that it is prohibited to distribute unaddressed advertising to residents who have clearly indicated they do not want to receive it.

Easy! That will get rid of a lot of the junk mail. I ordered a sticker from the municipality of Antwerp (no unaddressed advertising through this letter box) and received four by mail the next week. I stuck one on the letter box. The weekly leaflets from the local supermarkets stopped coming immediately. That was the biggest lot.

But unsolicited and unaddressed spam still arrived eventually. I started sending letters back to the people responsible, making them aware of Article 101 of the police code and telling them that we no longer wished to receive unsolicited mail, and that if they continued to send it, I would report it to the police. 

2.    Then there is spam addressed to us

Ahhh, I love this one: the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, a useful tool in the fight against spam.

My husband and I are both self-employed which means our data is publicly available so we receive a lot of addressed spam. But this does not mean that our data can be used for just any purpose without our consent.

Every unsolicited letter that comes through our mailbox addressed to me or my husband gets a letter back from me ordering them, by virtue of article 17 of the GDPR, to delete our data from their records, since we never gave them permission to process our data in the first place. And if there is a legitimate reason to process our data, to let us know what that legitimate reason is.

3.    Addressed information leaflets

Then there are the addressed information leaflets. For instance, the travel insurer sending us their monthly magazine with travel tips.

I sent two friendly letters, one to our travel insurer, and one to the health insurer, thanking them for their efforts to inform us on what they believe is important, but to stop sending these periodicals because we don’t read them anyway. I received friendly replies informing me that they would stop sending me their information leaflets.

4.    Special case

There is one addressee in particular to whom I sent a special letter: the Vlerick management school. I received a leaflet from them announcing their courses on offer. It was addressed to my office and wrapped in cellophane. For a management school, creating the managers of the future, I thought that was not good enough.

Call me naïve, but I decided to write to them. I asked them to reconsider the use of cellophane for the distribution of their leaflets. I did a quick calculation of the number of lawyers they must have sent it to (I had received it so all lawyers, at least in Antwerp, must have received it) and thus, the amount of cellophane sent straight into the environment. For an institution producing the managers of the future how could they not be more environmentally aware?

Less than a week later, they wrote back to me, by email, thanking me for holding a mirror in front of them and informing me of the fact that they had already had a team meeting about this and had informed their suppliers of their wish to change.

Well, I don’t know if they actually will or not, but I will continue to write letters. Every penny that drops will raise awareness further and will lead to a better future for us all!

5.    The impact

Environmental impact
I need to wait and see what this does to our mailbox but the impact is already huge, given that the weekly advertising (which was the biggest chunk of it) stopped arriving. I will report back to you after a couple of months.

Financial impact
Apart from the initial letters and stamps, the financial impact is zero.

Space impact
We win because we no longer have to stock all the paper until the bin men come to collect it.

Time and effort impact
With the exception of the initial efforts of sending the letters, we win because we don’t have to bother with all that paper waste anymore.

The only downside
We no longer have any idea what the week’s special offers are in the Aldi. A tough sacrifice, but one we’re coping with.