If you are looking to reduce your environmental impact then reducing your waste is a good place to start. The total household waste collected per person during 2019/2020 in Epsom and Ewell was a staggering 370.4kg (county average 358.5kg). Just imagine if we had to deal with processing our own waste ourselves. Luckily the Council will collect our waste from the kerbside but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the journey it takes after it leaves our bins.
There are many types of waste collected by the Council which are sent to be “recycled” – the conversion of waste into a new material. It’s easy to think that if something is recyclable then this is good and we can continue to produce waste of this kind. A more accurate definition of the term “recycling” is a process to return material to a previous stage in a process that operates as a cycle.
Recycling and Downcycling
Glass is a great example of a material which is truly recycled, it can be melted down and made into new glass containers with no loss of quality, so glass can be recycled indefinitely. Other materials such as paper and cardboard degrade each time they are recycled so often new fibres have to be added to achieve a high-quality end product. Materials such as these would be more accurately described as being “downcycled” and plastics are another example of a material suffering this loss of quality. Downcycled materials can often only undergo a limited number of processing cycles before reaching the end of their useful lives. Sometimes the resulting product from downcycling cannot itself be recycled, for example plastic bottles can be downcycled to form fibres for a fleece jacket but the jacket cannot be downcycled like the original plastic bottle. Tetra Pak is another material which is downcycled due to its complex composition: layers of paperboard, polyethylene and aluminium. In fact the processing of Tetra Paks is a linear process as new materials are used to make the cartons and the waste materials are used in other ways.
What happens to our recycling in Epsom and Ewell?
Details on “what happens to your recycling” in Epsom and Ewell can be found on the Council website, this highlights the savings made by recycling materials such as glass, metal and paper/cardboard, in terms of energy, carbon emissions and the use of virgin materials. So if we have used these materials it is vitally important that we dispose of them correctly so that they can be recycled, however we should also consider whether it is necessary to purchase the items in this single-use packaging in the first place. What are the alternatives?
Alternatives to single-use items and packaging
Often it is possible to buy items loose; usually fruit and vegetables, and bakery products in supermarkets and at our local markets can be bought in this way. Make yourself some bags from an old net curtain or sheet for your produce. Always take your own containers with you to use – this works well with bakery items. All the main chains now support this so make sure you take produce bags/containers along with your shopping bags!
Bottled water is an easy one, simply swap to drinking tap water with no need for a single-use container. This is far more effective than comparing different packaging types and choosing the one with the lowest impact. Choose no packaging!
For zero waste shopping you could visit one of our local zero waste stores. Within the borough we have Honey and Bamboo in Ewell and just outside the borough is Greenwise in Ashtead. Here you can buy a range of store cupboard foods, toiletries and cleaning basics - simply bring some empty containers and get them filled with the items you need.
Many of the food products which we buy in single-use packaging are snack foods - individually wrapped sweet snack bars, crips, crackers, chocolate bars and sweets. The wrappers from these products are typcially found in large numbers by our local litter pickers too. If we all swapped from buying these products in their single-use wrappers to making similar foods at home, we would see several benefits: 1. There is less single-use plastic packaging used in the raw ingredients for our snack foods, if we were to make them at home, so there would be less waste, 2. Due to the time and effort involved in making these goods, we would eat less of them and be healthier, 3. We would save money.
Wet wipes are another item which are easy to replace with a reusable alternative. An old towel or sheet can easily be cut into pieces of the desired size, then these can either be pre-soaked and stored in a waterproof container ready for use, or kept dry and moistened with water when needed. It's useful to carry a small bag or container for dirty wipes which can then be washed in your usual washing cycle.
Swapping to reusable cloth nappies and reusable sanitary products can also have a large impact on the amount of non-recycleable, single-use waste produced by a household. Cloth nappies can often be bought second hand reducing the initial cost and there are a wide range of different designs and systems available. There is also now a wide range of reusable sanitary products available too, from menstrual cups, to washable pads and period pants. Although the initial cost is higher than a disposable product, these items can last for many years and so there is a lower cost over the product's lifetime.
You can find lots more tips and suggestions about plastic-free alternatives on the Plastic Free July website.