Friday, 2 September 2016

Stop throwing money away for good

Recycling can be a source of frustration.

Of course, you want to do the right thing but, first, the lack of clear, useful information provided by certain food brands to their customers is truly infuriating (especially when the product is organic!); second, there are only some many types of waste recycled by the company used by your local council ; third, this list of items varies depending on where you live (including within the confines of the Greater London Authority). It's not surprising that many of us here in the UK end up throwing non-recyclable waste in the recycling bin by mistake. 

$15 millions raised for non-profit organisations 
Nevertheless, waste recycling can be a satisfying experience. It can even bring pride to your  community and enable you to raise money for your local school and/or your favourite charity. That's the deal offered by TerraCycle. The company claims to have collected more than 3 billions of pieces of waste and raised $15 millions for charities across the world.

TerraCycle European headquarters are located in Perivale, in North West London.
The waste they collect via their various recycling programmes is processed in Preston in Lancashire.

I've discovered TerraCycle about a year ago watching a TV report ahead of the COP 21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. However, it took a visit to their London office for me to fully realize the positive impact TerraCycle has on local communities here in the UK.

A company created by a 19 year old
The company was set up in 2001 in the US by a student called Tom Szaky. Since then, it has become a serious player in the recycling field at the global level. The social entreprise inaugurated its European headquarters in London seven years ago. There, a team of 25 people runs its operations for the UK, France, the Nordic countries and other European countries. TerraCycle is currently established in 20 countries worldwide. It should enter the Indian market soon - interesting times ahead. 

The company was created in 2001 by a Princeton student, Tom Szaky.
Tom, the CEO of TerraCycle, has written several books about waste. 

"Everything is recyclable but there is a cost to it", Stephen Clarke from TerraCycyle Northern Europe sums up. To divert coffee packaging, baby food pouches, home cleaning products, aerosols and other materials from landfill, TerraCycle has struck a partnership with big international consumer brands. "Without those brands, we wouldn't be able to fund the programme", the communications director  insists right from the start.

The (coffee pod) money tree
The deals established by TerraCycle with Kenco, Tassimo, Ella's Kitchen, McVitie's and other brands enable the company to run free recycling programmes such as the writing instruments one, EllaCycle, the coffee packaging recycling programme or McVitie's biscuit wrappers programme. Volunteers order collection boxes from TerraCycle (for free), install them in public places (ex.: supermarkets, office buildings, companies premises) or in people's front gardens, for example. When they have collected a sizeable amount of pens, baby food pouches, biscuit wrappers etc., they send them back to TerraCycle (also for free). In return for their efforts, TerraCycle members earn points that can be redeemed for cash-payment to schools and non-profit organisations.

Collection boxes supplied by TerraCycle to its members for public drop-off points.
TerraCycle recommends installing them in supermarkets, office buildings 

"One of our more active members in the UK, George Thomson, has raised £5000 for MacMillan Cancer Support in the space of three years by collecting Tassimo coffee pods in Milton Keynes where he lives", communications executive Katie Saunders mentions during our meeting. "Tassimo pods recycling volunteers in the UK form a very dynamic group! They even have a Facebook page where they exchange tips and information about collection points", Katie adds, clearly impressed with the dedication shown by members of TerraCycle.

Poster posted by George Thomson on Facebook on July 22nd 2016. 
Initially the retired Milton Keynes resident was aiming at raising £50. 

In reality, George Thomson doesn't just collect Tassimo pods. He takes part in various TerraCycle free recycling programmes. In South Belfast, a group of friends baptised We Can Recycle also runs several TerraCycle programmes simultaneously. The money they raise is split between Kicks Count, a health charity, and Assisi Sanctuary Northern Ireland, a charity that re-homes pets. The small volunteer group also collects cigarette butts - just for the sake of clearing litter and recycling valuable materials.

The most littered item in the world
The cigarette waste recycling programme has been launched in the UK in September 2015 by TerraCycle. "Cigarettes are the most littered item in the world", Stephen Clarke informs me. TerraCycle members cannot earn points by collecting cigarette butts - "it's prohibited by the law", the communications director explains. But volunteers are motivated nonetheless. More than half a million butts have been recycled so far in the UK at 220 location points.

TerraCycle is not allowed to reward volunteers with points for recycling cigarette waste.
The programme, launched a year ago in the UK, is nonetheless popular.

Cigarette butts are broken down between down between organic and non-organic materials. The latter are used to make plastic pellets. "The pellets are then used to make construction pallets, for example. Those kinds of pallets are much stronger than wood", Stephen ensures.

TerraCycle doesn't manufacture any upcycled objects - with the exception of food packaging rolls that they sometimes turn into bags and other goodies for their brand partners at their demand. The raison d'être of the business is to orchestrate the collection of substantial quantities of hard-to-recycle waste and find specialised recycling factories for those items. The engagement taken by TerraCycle is to never incinerate or send to landfill the waste it collects.

TerraCycle manufactures a few upcycled items for the brands it has a partnership with.
Those items are very sought after by customers. 

At a personal level, I consider TerraCycle recycling programmes as an opportunity to reduce my waste even further. I am thinking about pens and coffee packaging, in particular - and other materials that I still use but are not recycled by my local council.

At a community level, those recycling programmes can also be a very good tool to get children in recycling. Also, think about the number of pens companies go through. The same for cafés and restaurants regarding coffee packs. If collected via TerraCycle, it's a lot of money that could be raised for schools and charities in Harlesden where I live.

Waste is a gigantic problem that needs tackling from different sides. As much as I am advocating for waste reduction first and foremost, I am aware recycling has to be part of the mix.

  • ACT
  1. To check the location of TerraCycle collection points in the UK click here.
  2. To set up a TerraCycle account click here.

If you collect waste on behalf of TerraCycle in the UK or somewhere else in the world, please share your experience with other readers by leaving a comment below. Thank you! 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Take care of your waste and your health in one go

Two weeks ago, a Swedish journalist from Dagens Nyheter interviewed me about my (almost) zero waste lifestyle. I told her that there were a number of convenience items we can all do without very easily - kitchen towels, cling film and foil, for example. "But I use foil every time I have barbecue", she replied. "Well, the thing is that aluminium foil shouldn't be used to wrap up hot food. It's been proved that aluminium leaches into the food and that's not good for your health", I informed her. 

You see, I don't go about lecturing people about what they should eat or not eat, nor how they should eat their food. However, if I know something that they don't and that information is crucial to their health, I will let them know. I am not a doctor, I am not a scientist but it's a fact that industrial chemicals are interfering with our bodies and causing a lot of harm. As a journalist, I feel it's my moral duty to inform people about such things. And point them in the direction of well-informed articles on the subject. 

Take bisphenol A (BPA), a widely used chemical. You find it in plastic, food can lining and also till receipts. It's an endocrine disruptor. It's been linked to a vast array of serious illnesses and life-limiting health conditions - cancer, asthma, obesity, cardiovascular risks, infertility etc. The European Union has banned the production of baby bottles containing BPA in March 2011. Since January 2015 BPA is banned from all food containers in France. (Questions remain regarding the industrial chemicals used to replace BPA in those products, though.)

BPA is not the only culprit. Phthalates are also suspected to be an endocrine disruptor. They are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. They are used in food packaging, cosmetics, personal care products etc. 

The combined effect of those endocrine disruptors and other chemical components can be extremely potent. It's called the cocktail effect (l'effet cocktail, en français). "Significant effects can occur even when organisms are exposed at levels below their individual effects concentration", the Chem Trust informs us. In other words, small quantities of chemical components can be innocuous by themselves but very harmful when they interact with other of chemical components.

Hence, the attraction of a zero waste lifestyle - for me and lots of people. 

Less plastic and more natural products in your day-to-day life 
= a reduced exposure to all those health hazards 
= a healthier life

We cannot completely control our environment. That doesn't mean we cannot control it at all. Take it from someone who has been struggling with infertility for more than three years. I don't know what impact those endocrine disruptors have had - if at all - on my inability to conceive so far. Likewise, I have no guarantee that I will become pregnant if I keep limiting my exposure to BPA, phthalates, pesticides etc. However, I know that my general health will improve. That, in itself, is important if I want to make the most of my life - independently from my family circumstances.

Buying loose organic vegetables enables you to avoid exposure
to both pesticides and plastic packaging. 

If you want to find out more about the impact of endocrine disruptors on our health:
- check out Breast Cancer UK: you will find a lot of information there about the links between harmful chemicals and breast cancer; check out their #DitchTheJunk campaign
-visit the Chem Trust website and read their blog (Obesity and diabetes - a chemical link?, for example)
-visit the Environmental Working Group, a non-for-profit American organisation dedicated to protecting human health and the environment

Monday, 30 May 2016

Zero waste gardening in London

Eight years after moving to London from Paris, I feel like I'm at a turning point in my life. I'm becoming someone who enjoys gardening. Not only that but I'm even thinking about starting a diary to keep track of what's going on in my garden. Damn! How did that happen? 

The logic is simple. Having an outdoor space is a precious resource. Like any other resources, it shouldn't go to waste. Saying that, gardening is not a chore on my to-do list. I enjoy being outside. After spending a couple of hours sorting some garden waste or doing some weeding, I feel refreshed. Being surrounded by waist-high wild flowers gives you a different perspective on the world - especially when you live in a very urban part of London. 

There are lots of wild poppies in my garden at the moment. 

So I took advantage of today's bank holiday (jour férié, in French) to repot all my house plants in the garden. I get a lot of joy looking at my succulents, for example. Plus, plants are not just pretty. They are useful (watch Kamal Meattle's TED talk below). Take spider plants. They do an amazing job at cleaning indoors air. So it's only fair that I return my spider plant the favour by repotting it once a year, as I recently learned reading The Thrifty gardener by Alys Fowler

I had fun grouping all the repotted plants together for a "family portrait". 

To indulge in my new hobby I only used a couple of gardening tools and some compost. I bought a big bag of multipurpose compost for less than £7 (I only used a fifth of it, maximum). I didn't need to buy any pots. I used some of the empty pots that we've found in the garden. They were pots hiding in every corner of the place when we moved in. We also inherited a fig tree from the previous owners. It's in a pot and there are a few very small figs on it. 

Talking about exotic fruit, I've started growing from seed not one, not two but three avocado plants this week. I hope that they will all sprout and that I'll be able to give a couple of them to family and friends. It would be a great zero waste present for someone, one day. "The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now." (Chinese proverb). 

Interested in finding out more about air purifying plants? Watch the TED talk given by Kamal Meattle. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Thrifty Gardener

My husband received Alys Fowler's The Thrifty Gardener as a birthday present from his sister last week. The book was published in 2008 but, as far as we are concerned, it couldn't be more of the moment (thank you, Rachel!). 

Our garden was completely overgrown when we moved
into our  house in Harlesden in September 2014.

A year and a half after moving into our house, we've just started designing our garden. Our plan is to grow vegetables, aromatic herbs, have a few chickens and plant a few more bee friendly flowers. But we've never looked after a garden before and we don't have any money to spend on it. So The Thrifty Gardener is exactly the kind of companion we need. This book won't sit on a shelf. It's gonna be well used. I know this already. 

The Thrifty Gardener is a well-designed book.
You can probably get it second hand as it was published in 2008. 

Guardian columnist Alys Fowler takes you through the different steps you need to take to create the kind of garden you want. Whether it's pruning trees or propagating plants, everything seems to be perfectly achievable with no previous experience, as long as you follow a few rules. Money is not an issue. You can grow a chilli plant from seed and an avocado plant using a pit. No excuse. 

I bought three seedlings (chilli plant, tomato plant and butternut squash)
 from Queen's Park farmers' market yesterday (£3!) 

The Thrifty Gardener is very appealing to zero waste advocates. Alys Fowler is all for using repurposed containers, making flower boxes with reclaimed material and bargain hunting for plants in garden centres. There's also a section on how to grow a garden if you are renting. The chapter on house plants is also very good. You can get a lot of pleasure for keeping plants indoors but you can't expect them to do well with very little/no attention (note to myself!). They need repotting every year (yes, they do!). 

Two of my house plants.
I gave a bit of  tender loving care to the spider plant last week.

We've started making our own compost less than a month ago. So, as soon as I laid my hands on The Thrifty Gardener,  I've delved into the section dedicated to compost. Without any good compost, growing any kind of plants is impossible. Making good compost is like baking a cake, write Alys. You need to follow a recipe. All the rules are laid out very clearly by the British gardener. She also explains how to build your own compost bin and your own worm box. Get your tools ready!

One of our two compost bins.
They were a (very useful) Christmas present from my parents-in-law.

"When you grow your own vegetables, make your own teas or recycle your kitchen waste in a bin that you made, you are taking control", Alys Fowler writes in the preamble to the Thrifty Gardener. I say amen to this. I never thought that scrapping my vegetable peelings and fruit skins into a compost bin in my garden would fill with joy. But it does. As for growing vegetables, well, give me a few months...

For more information:
The Thrifty Gardener, How to create a stylish garden with next to nothing, by Alys Fowler, published by Kyle Books
Alys Fowler on Twitter: @AlysFowler

Monday, 16 May 2016

An insightful artistic obsession with waste

It's a bizarre feeling for someone like me whose heart sinks at the sight of a discarded plastic bottle to be mesmerised by a collection of waste collected on English beaches. But there is something surprisingly beautiful in Stuart Haygarth's photographs of the waste he collected in 2011. The photos are part of Strand, a book recently published by the artist.

A collection of blue waste collected and photographed
by Stuart Haygarth.

Between February and October 2011, the British artist walked along the entire coast of the South of England with the goal of collecting man-made material. His aim was to collect waste to create an installation commissioned by UCL hospital in London for its new cancer wing. Haygarth did it in several stages. As a whole, he walked about 800 kilometres, from Gravesend in Kent to Land's end in Cornwall, over 38 days. At a talk held at the Design Museum in London last week, the artist explained that his intention was to put himself through a mental and physical process which echoed the journey of patients diagnosed with cancer.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

As far as he can remember, Haygarth has always been obsessed with waste, he explained. "I don't see myself as an environmental designer but I always hated waste and I've always been fascinated by things left at the end of someone's life and the stories they tell", he said. When Haygarth set off on his walk, he was pulling a trolley behind him to store all the pieces of waste that caught his eye. But, in the thick wintry mud of Kent, the trolley quickly proved very inconvenient. So he bought a military rucksack in a charity shop in Folkestone and ordered a litter picker online.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

"The closer to London I got, the more debris washed up on the sea", Stuart Haygarth noticed. The vast majority of the waste he collected was made of plastic. Lighters, buckets, dolls, rubber gloves, pieces of laminated floors etc. - the range of plastic waste collected by the London artist is incredible. Haygarth even found a number of plastic flowers. His assumption is that the fake flowers had been left on benches close to the coast in memory of deceased people who used to sit on a particular bench, for example.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

Back in his studio in London Haygarth washed the waste, categorised it and photographed it before using it to create the installation commissioned by UCL. The precision used by the artist to lay the artefacts on a white background reminded me of best-selling author Marie Kondo's art of tidying. It looks to me as if they have a similar fascination for well-ordered objects.

Photo by Stuart Haygarth

It's not surprising when you know that the award-winning design artist used to be a commercial photographer in the 90s. It was before the invention of Photoshop. "Everything had to be perfect, accurate and precise", he recalls. Haygarth enjoys "reconfiguring something overlooked and quite banal into something interesting". He manages to make a series of well-used shoe soles look like the produce of an archaeological dig. Also, some of his colourful compositions are not too dissimilar from entomological collections.

Photo by Stuart Hygarth

Among the compositions featured in Strand (beach in old English and German), I have a particular fondness for the toy collection and, more specifically for the beaten-up dolls. How did they ended up in the sea? It's the same question I ask myself when I see a pile of clothes or bed linens fly-tipped on one of the streets nearby my house. I find lonely pairs of shoes particularly distressing. Behind the waste, there's inevitably a human story. And I can't help thinking that belongings piled-up on a London street-corner tell a very sad, if not sometimes sinister, story.

Strand, photos by Stuart Haygarth, texts by Robert Macfarlane and Deyan Sudjic, Art / Books, April 2016, £28
To find out more about Stuart Haygarth, you can visit his website.

Monday, 9 May 2016

"If you live in Roubaix, you can't ignore the zero waste challenge"

Up until last year, when Roubaix was making the headlines, the news were rarely positive. The northern town, located almost on the border with Belgium and host to the international cycling race Paris-Roubaix, is one of the most deprived urban areas in France. But, recently, Roubaix has been getting a lot of media attention for its pioneering zero waste programme. And it may just be the beginning. On May 25th, Roubaix will find out whether it has become part of the 100 Resilient Cities pioneered by the Rockfeller Foundation.

Read my interview below with Alexandre Garcin, Roubaix councillor in charge with sustainability, aka Mr. Zéro Déchet.

How did you come with the idea of launching a zero waste challenge in Roubaix? 
During the local election campaign in 2014, litter featured really high in people's list of concerns. We thought we could invest more resources to improve street cleanliness. Another solution was to eradicate litter. Several towns in Italy had already implemented a zero waste policy. We thought "if Italians can do it, there is no reason we cannot". So we promised to launch a zero waste programme if elected. 

There had been similar initiatives launched in other French regions but nothing on this scale. 

When did the zero waste family challenge start? 
The family challenge - le défi familles, in French - started in November 2014. The aim was to support 100 families during one year in their efforts to halve their non-recyclable non-compostable waste. There had been similar initiatives launched in other French regions (in Grenoble and Nantes) but nothing on this time scale. Acquiring new habits takes time. If you decide to change your eating habits over a period of three months, you are taking the risk to fall back into bad habits straight after that. You won't if you decide to take one year to embrace a new diet. 

How did you recruit families? 
We recruited them via the council bulletin and local newspapers. We also got the word out via community organisations. In the end, we recruited 104 families. They were all very diverse in order to reflect the town's population. 

"It doesn't cost more money and it doesn't take more time",
says Nicolas, one of the participants. 

What kind of support did the participants receive? 
Each family was given some travel scales to weigh their waste. We also organised 14 workshops for them. The workshops were very hands-on. They were focused how on to make cleaning products at home, cook with leftovers etc. Families were offered very concrete solutions to the challenges encountered in their waste reduction challenge. (Families have also been using an app to keep track of their waste and sign up to workshops.)

Did some families drop out?
About ten families didn't finish the challenge, mainly because of some unexpected life events. They still intended to keep on reducing their waste, though. 

Have the zero waste families become waste reduction ambassadors in their communities?
Some of the families were already quite eco-conscious, others not at all. But all families have now become enthusiastic ambassadors. They've been sharing their zero waste experiences with their neighbours, extended families and friends. 
Those hundred families roughly account for 300 Roubaix residents, i.e. roughly 0,3% of the town population. It's very little. This year, we've enrolled another 100 families. So, all in whole, we've reached 600 people, i.e. 0,6% of the local population. If each of those people talk to 9 other people, the ball starts rolling and it becomes quite significant. 
In parallel to the zero waste family challenge, we've also engaged with local schools, businesses and public bodies, alongside community organisations and shops. Today, you cannot live in Roubaix and not be aware of the zero waste challenge. 

"I've done it essentially for my children", says Céline. 

Participants are proud of being more responsible consumers.

What have been the benefits for the families who took part in the challenge? 
They feel extremely proud. They're proud of their achievement and also proud of being more responsible consumers. There is also an economic benefit. Some families have regained some purchasing power. They have a better life since they started challenge. This is clearly the case for Andrée Nieuwjaer, one of the participants. She's our local Béa Johnson! (Béa Johnson visited Roubaix in March 2015.) She used to struggle on a 500 euros budget (about £400 or $570). Three weeks into the month, she couldn't make ends meet. Since she's changed her shopping habits, she only spends 300 euros per month. She is able to put some money aside for herself and her children. 

"We need more people to do it", says Maxime (left on the photo).  

There are also some zero waste shops in Roubaix now. How different are they from other shops? 
We've launched a zero waste programme for shops. The aim is to create a zero waste offer to answer the zero waste demand that we've created with the family challenge. About thirty shop keepers and restaurant owners have joined the zero waste ranks so far. They need to commit to reducing their waste and also inform their customers about waste reduction. It's not just a PR operation. We are working with each of those shop keepers to find some zero waste solutions for them. It's a great tool to reduce their costs. 

Roubaix council set up a dedicated zero waste website. How useful is it? 
It features a lot of useful information about waste reduction. The families who are taking part to the zero waste challenge are able to log into a private area. There, they can enter the weight of their waste.

The website features short articles by participants. 

Families have reduced their waste by 45% on average

What's the waste reduction aim of Roubaix for 2020? 
We want to double our recycling rate. We also want to reduce non-recyclable household waste by 30%. Zero waste families have reduced their waste by 45% on average over a period of one year. They proved that it's possible to do it. 

What's the cost of the zero waste programme for Roubaix council? 
As a whole, it costs 200 000 euros (about £157k or $227k). Half of it is financed by the council, the other half is covered by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME, Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie). 

Alexandre Garcin, councillor for Roubaix,
was inspired by Capannori in Italy

What are the benefits for the town?
There is a clear benefit concerning the image of Roubaix. Although it's only been a year and half since we've started implementing the zero waste policy, we regularly host delegations from across Europe. They want to see the zero waste family challenge in action. 
There is also a community benefit. The challenge has created connections between families and between other people and organisations across town. Building a circular economy at city level generates a lot of social interactions. 
As for the economic benefits, it will take a few years before we can assess it. Saying that, we can already detect some positive signs. Zero waste shopping generates savings for households. It also benefits local businesses. Creating a circular economy is beneficial to local employment. It creates new growth opportunities. 

You travelled to London in April to defend Roubaix' candidacy to the 100 Resilient Cities network. What difference would it make if Roubaix was becoming part of this network on May 25th?
Being resilient means being able to cope with a shock or ongoing stress. Roubaix has proved resilient in its recent history. The size of its textile sector has decreased massively during the second half of the XXth century. Adopting a zero waste policy is an integral part of increasing the town's resilience. Becoming part one of the 100 Resilient Cities would enable us to share our experience with cities across the world and speed up the zero waste revolution. 

Are there any other neighbouring towns which have started similar programmes of actions? 
There are other towns in France who have similar programmes - Miramas, in the South of France, for example. There aren't any towns in the North of France yet. But we are organising a zero waste conference on May 12th. It will bring together people involved in zero waste initiatives across the region. That will enable us to coordinate our actions to go even further. 

Alexandre Garcin is on Twitter (@AlexandreGarcin). 
If you want to find out more about Zéro Déchet Roubaix, you can visit the website here
For more details check out Zero Waste Europe. The Story of Roubaix is one the case studies that feature on their website.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The funniest zero waste guide ever

Last December, during the COP 21 summit, I discovered a blog written by a zero waste French family leaving in Landes in the South West of France. Reading one article after another for about an hour, I couldn't stop laughing.

Jérémie Pichon, 40 years old, and Bénédicte Moret, 32, have been sharing the ups and downs of their zero waste journey on their blog since October 2014. They are completely committed to reducing their waste and they have a great sense of humour.

Jérémie writes articles - he loves puns, uses a lot of slang and adore poking fun at so-called "zérosceptics". Bénédicte, a graphist and illustrator by profession, adds a visual dimension to Jérémie's articles. Her cartoons are witty and colourful. Together they form an irresistible double act.

"When we started the blog, Bénédicte and I just wanted to have a fun joint project. We never thought that it would become so popular so quickly. We are delighted", Jérémie tells me. A year and a half after its launch, the blog receives 2000 hits per day. Each articles attracts dozens of enthusiastic comments from readers. Their Facebook page is also proof of the huge popularity of La famille (presque) zéro déchet.

In fact, the blog proved so popular that last year Bénédicte and Jérémie were approched by a French publisher. La famille presque zéro déchet, Ze Guide came out on March 3rd. 15 000 copies had already been printed by mid-April. 

I took the opportunity of a recent trip to France to buy Ze guide.

The book, as the blog, is not a comic book you just read to get entertained. It's very funny but also extremely practical. Jérémie and Bénédicte advice their readers on how to shop zero waste, celebrate kids birthday in a sustainable manner and, generally speaking, live a zero waste life in an environment where zero waste is not the norm (yet). Above all, the guide contains a handful of recipes - toothpaste, washing-up liquid, laundry liquid etc. - tried and tested by the authors and their two young children.

I've used the recipes contained in the book to make my own dish-washer powder and toothpaste.

Before they embraced a zero waste lifestyle, Jérémie and his partner, Bénédicte, considered themselves being very eco-friendly. But their life was completely transformed when they decided to reduce their waste drastically. "We are healthier. Our monthly budget has been reduced. All in whole, we live a better life", Jérémie summarizes. What about the kids? "They've hardly noticed anything. They got used to homemade cakes and compotes very quickly. They find them much tastier than the industrial goûters we fed them before.

"At three, we jump in the bin" Cartoon by Bénédicte Moret.

Jérémie, who has been campaigning on green issues for the last 15 years, feels like the tide is turning. "An increasing number of people in France think that there is no point waiting for politicians to change things for the better, that it's much more efficient and satisfying to kick start things at home and in the community. Being zero waste is also a way to grab some power back from big companies. Buying local products from small producers is a very powerful political act."

By Bénédicte Moret, a.k. Bloutouf

What's next for La famille (presque) zéro déchet? "We keep publishing articles on our blog. We are also working on a children version of the book. It will be released at the end of the year. We hope that we can educate the young generation to sustainability. It's crucial because we can't carry on producing as much as we are at the moment. Resources are limited."

Find out more about Jérémie and Bénédicte's zero waste journey (in French) on their blog, La famille (presque) zéro déchet. If you are interested in Bénédicte's work, have a look to her website.

Bénédicte Moret and Jérémie Pichon will give a conference at the Festival Zero Waste. The 3-day festival, organised by Zero Waste France, is taking place in Paris between June 30th and July 2nd. 
Béa Johnson, Tomorrow's film-director Cyril Dion, 2013 Goldman prize winner Rossano Ercolini, Robert Reed etc. will feature among the 100 guests. The festival will also be a very practical event - 50 workshops are part of the programme.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

"Creativity, recycling and a dash of joy"

In 2007 Claire Morsman lived on a houseboat in London. She could see plastic rubbish floating past the boat every day. She decided to start making fabric bags out of recycled material and hand them out to family, friends and strangers to gently persuade people to stop using plastic bags. Nine years later, 200 000 Morsbags have been made in the UK and abroad. It's a simple and very powerful idea! Read my interview with Claire below. 

What does it take to make a Morsbag? 
You need to put aside 15 minutes, take a look at the pattern (or watch the video below), rummage around for some spare material, cut, sew, attach label, admire and smile. You can have a slice of cake while you decide whom to give it to. Making a Morsbag takes very little time but involves creativity, recycling and a dash of joy. That’s why thousands of people have told us they’ve become addicted and just have to keep on making and giving!


Morsbags are given for free by volunteer makers to family members, friends and strangers. How can volunteer know whether the Morsbags recipients value the bags? 
There is a kind of ‘random act of kindness’ involved with guerrilla morsbagging. Morsbags are homemade. It means that someone has invested time and love. Recipients often wonder what the catch is. There isn’t one. Once that has been understood, then a Morsbag is usually valued more and people tend to remember to use it for those specific reasons.
Handing out Morsbags to strangers can be daunting but it’s a way to bring communities together. Seeing the smiles on people’s faces and the offers of airing-cupboard-decluttering for fabric donations, means people are getting involved.

One of the 1517 Morsbags made by Claire.
Morsbags are made by volunteers and given away for free.
They can be recognised thanks to their Morsbags label. 

When you decided to make fabric bags to replace plastic bags in 2007 what were you hoping for? 
I thought I could make a simple reusable shopping bag out of material that already existed, rather than buying one as conventional cotton farming is responsible for huge pesticide use and supermarket so-called bags for life also have a big carbon footprint.
Making my first bag took no time at all and was fun to do so I suddenly wondered why everyone wasn’t doing this. I wanted to give everyone the free pattern so my husband made a simple webpage so people could help themselves. I then posted on a few sewing forums and sewed frantically so I could give out the bags to as many people as possible, with the web address on.

Claire Morsman, now 40, started guerrilla morsbagging in 2007.
At the time, she was living on a boat in London. 

"There’s something wonderful in an idea spreading organically and via interesting and unpredictable channels."

How quickly did the idea spread?
The idea spread incredibly quickly considering it was all word of mouth or should I say ‘labels on bags’. BBC Breakfast then contacted us and featured us 6 months after that first Morsbag and suddenly things really took off and a community of Morsbaggers began to grow. The people who joined us were extraordinary and gave their passion, material, ideas, and time and made morsbagging as well-known as it is today. There’s something wonderful in an idea spreading organically and via interesting and unpredictable channels.

In towns where there is a very active pod, has plastic bag pollution (or litter in general) decreased? 
That’s a really interesting question and I’m afraid I don’t know for sure. I’m certain though that local inhabitants in places such as parts of Leicester, Bude, Herefordshire, the Isle of Mann and Cornwall for example, are thinking far more about their plastic bag and packaging consumption. People write to us saying they hadn’t thought about it before but now they see plastic everywhere and are trying to reduce their use as they know the harm it can cause.

Walsall saddlebags pod get together once a month. 
The bags are generally distributed on stalls at local craft fairs. 

Is it more difficult to convince men than women to use Morsbags? 
 Ha! Actually, no! That’s down to 3 things….
1) It’s all about the flavour of Morsbag. We’ve found that a lot of donated material can be chintzy or colourful, which many men don’t seem to like. So, if a man is given a muted manly-Morsbag in greys, blues or a man’s shirt (including their own), they are happier to use them.
2) They like the simplicity and practicality of them. We’ve had plenty of men appreciating the fact that morsbags don’t split and let shopping swirl all over the pavement, as plastic bags are prone to do, and also the more comfortable handles.
3) They often wouldn’t dare not use the bags that their wives or children have made, of course!
It’s true though that we have fewer morsbagging men than women – although we have some fabulously supportive husbands bringing in the tea and cake to pod meetings and ordering labels online.

There is a free bag pattern available on your website but people can also customize their Morsbags. What are the most interesting take on the Morsbags you've seen? 
We loved the wheelchair Morsbag pattern. Many people customize the length of handles to suit their needs. Also, some put in a flat bottom. We loved it when someone made a fold-up Morsbag out of very thin but strong hot air balloon fabric and sewed in a small piece of netting to keep it neatly folded and there was also a bike handles Morsbag. The most innovative would be the solar lights sewn into a Morsbag that a male morsbagger from Cuckoobird pod in Cornwall made. Genius and wacky!

A Morsbag Claire made out an old umbrella.
I'll never bin my old umbrella anymore!

"The bag levy is a good start but is not the complete answer whereas Morsbags is."

Have you ever come across someone you didn't know on the street using a Morsbag? How did that make you feel? 
It’s a ridiculously wonderful feeling because it’s a bit surreal. In the early days I saw a lady carrying what I thought was a Morsbag at a tube station in London. Instead of asking her if it was, I stalked her around the station trying to get a good look. I think my jaw dropped in disbelief when I saw the label. I haven’t seen any truly in the wild since, but know I’d act a bit differently now and say hello if I did. However, I know that when they are spotted by Morsbaggers, it’s a thrilling feeling that makes it all worthwhile.

A plastic bag levy has been introduced in England in October 2015. However, shoppers are only charged for bags in large stores. Does that mean that nowadays pods are more focused on converting small shops customers to Morsbags? 
I think Morsbaggers grab the opportunity to convert anybody, anywhere! The bag levy is a good start but is not the complete answer whereas Morsbags is. So it’s important to tell as many people about it wherever they are.

Claire made this bag out of an old curtain she had on her houseboat.
"Morsbags can preserve memories", she says. 

If you could wipe out one thing from the surface of the earth to protect the environment -  apart from plastic bags - what would that be?
Cleaning products and their packaging. My heart sobs to see the aisles of chemical products that we’re duped into believing that we need and that go straight down the drain, literally. I’m not keen on plastic drink bottles, straws or toothbrushes either. There are many brilliant people on the planet so I’m hoping that these harmful products can be adapted soon, before our oceans and the wildlife within have had enough.

"I’ve had some of them for years and still use the first ever Morsbag. It’s still going strong after 9 years which tells its own story."

How many Morsbags have you made yourself since 2007? 
I have made 1517 Morsbags. My sewing machine is out and ready but I haven’t found time to make any for a while. It’s mostly due to the huge amount of labels orders coming in - a wonderful irony. My next mission is to teach my 10 month old daughter to make them to keep my pod afloat!

Curtains and soft furnishing covers given by Prince Charles and the royal household
to Morsbaggers in 2013. 

How big is your Morsbags collection at home? 
I have a core 12 or so Morsbags in the cupboard, car and pushchair. They rotate whenever I get excited by a new recycled fabric that comes my way but that’s not often as I love to give the interesting ones away. I’ve had some of them for years and still use the first ever Morsbag. It’s still going strong after 9 years which tells its own story.

How does it feel to wake up in a world where almost 200 000 Morsbags are being used? 
Hopeful. But I feel as if we need to times that number by 10,000. I’d better get sewing… Have you made a Morsbag? ;)

To find out more about Morsbags, visit the website. You can also get in touch with Morsbaggers via  Facebook and Twitter. If you are already Morsbagging, let me know about your experience. I am looking forward starting a Morsbagging pod in my neighbourhood in North West London.