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.