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 (www.robinsonlist.be). 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. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

And for these reasons, I will never use tea bags again, ever!

Tea is healthy! I think everyone will agree to that. But what about the teabags we use? Can you just compost them? Are they 100% biodegradable, or not? And what happens if you pour boiling water over them? Does it affect the quality of your tea?
OK, let’s start again: tea is healthy! But is it really? I did some laymen’s research. Stay with me …

The materials teabags are made of

Teabags are made of a variety of materials.

The most common teabags contain 20 to 30% polypropylene. Therefore, they are not 100% biodegradable. They leave plastic residue when composted. Also, each bag has 1 staple, one piece of string and 1 paper label.

Some teabags are made of nylon or polyethyleneterephtalate (it’s just PET). Nylon and PET are considered two of the safest plastics because they have extremely high melting points (there are several nylons, all with a melting point higher than 200°, the melting point of PET is 260° C). This means it’s less likely that plastics will leach out of the bag and into your tea. However, according to scientists, by pouring boiling water over them, small particles of plastic will still end up in your tea. Indeed, the glass-transition temperature (which is the transition in amorphous materials from a hard and relatively brittle "glassy" state into a viscous or rubbery state as the temperature is increased) of nylon and PET is below 100°C. This means that, even though the nylon and PET won’t melt, your cup of tea is not just a cup of tea…

Some teabags are made of paper. Usually these have been treated with epichlorohydrine, according to the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) this is a carcinogenic substance often used as a pesticide. This is even worse. There you go, paper is not always better! Oh, and by the way, coffee filters are also treated with epichlorohydrine!

So, not only is the teabag itself waste which we can avoid. Pouring boiling water over a teabag, no matter which material it is made of, will release unwanted substances in your tea, which you will ingest.

Loose tea versus tea bags, what’s the difference in price?

One of the arguments for buying tea in teabags is the price. It is said that tea in teabags is cheaper because the quality of loose tea is much better. Indeed, a teabag can hold much smaller tea leaf ‘dust’ than a tea strainer would hold. But is it actually cheaper? 

I wanted to find out on the basis of three of my favourite teas. I have more details than those below. If you’re interested, drop me a line and I will provide them. But for the sake of comparison of weight and cost, I have selected only these:

1.    Yogitea Himalaya chai

I bought one packet of loose tea and one packet with teabags. They both come in a cardboard box. The loose tea is packed in cellophane. The teabags are not but every 2 grams of tea is packed in a teabag and a separate paper wrapper.

Yogi teabags

The price was 3.29 EUR. It has 17 bags of 2g, 34g of tea.
Per 100g of tea, there is 100g of waste (I KID YOU NOT).
Per 100 g of tea, the cost is 9.68 EUR

Yogi loose

The price was 3.99 EUR. It has 90 grams of tea.
Per 100g of tea, there is 23,33g of waste.
Per 100 g of tea, the cost is 4.43 EUR

So teabags are more than twice the price and produce more than four times more waste than loose tea.

2.    Mint tea

I bought a box of mint teabags. The teabags hold 100% mint. Good, that’s the only mint tea worthy of the name “mint tea”. Tea aficionados will claim it is a mint infusion, not tea.

Mint tea bags

The price was 0.99 EUR. It has 25 bags of 2.25 grams of mint.
Per 100g of tea, that is 42.22g of waste.
Per 100 g of tea, the cost is 1.67 EUR

Mint tea loose

The price was 0.35 EUR. A bundle of mint weighs 95 g
Per 100g of tea, there is 0 waste.
Per 100 g of tea, the cost is 0.37 EUR.

So teabags are almost five times the price and loose tea comes without any waste.

3.    Earl grey

Earl grey loose:

The price was 5.95 EUR. It has 500 grams of earl grey tea.
Per 100g of tea, there is 14g of waste.
Per 100g of tea, the cost is 1.19 EUR

Earl grey tea bags:

The price was 4.60 EUR. It has 200g of earl grey.
Per 100g of tea, that is 40g of waste.
Per 100g of tea, the cost is 2.3 EUR

So teabags are almost twice the price and produce three times more waste.


Environmental impact: loose tea comes with a lot less waste. On top of that, your tea will not contain plastics or pesticides.

Financial impact: loose tea is much cheaper than teabags. The tea itself may be more expensive, but waste comes at a price as well.

Space: I win because I don’t have to store all the packaging, I can store more tea instead.

Times and effort: there is no impact whatsoever because most shops sell both teas on the same shelf. If anything I even win a little because I have to go to the shop less often, since I can store more tea in the same space.

And for all those reasons, I will never use tea bags again, ever!

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!