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!

Karine

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.





Conclusion

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! 

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!