Apparently each of us throws away seven times our body weight in rubbish each year. Can that really be right, I think, as I lug bin bag after bin bag to the front gate for the garbage collection: my family (two adults and four kids) have surely managed to junk more than seven times their combined weight this week alone. Or at least that's how it feels, as I survey the 17 or so black bags lined up shamefully outside our terraced house.
There is, of course, a certain sense of release in chucking all this domestic detritus on to the pavement every Tuesday night and making a fresh start, with empty bins and a clutter-free house, every Wednesday morning. But where has all that waste gone? (Answer, of course, to choke the planet via a landfill site.) And an even more chilling question: could not some of it - even, perhaps, all of it - have been avoided? When the new microchips are implanted in our wheelie bins in the bright new world of the Stern report future, what dirty secrets will their data reveal about my family's appallingly lax garbage habits?
Ahead of Stern, at least one local authority in Britain has decided to urge householders to do their bit to save the planet by cutting waste out completely. It's called the zero waste challenge, and over the last month Bath and North East Somerset Council has thrown down the gauntlet to local residents and asked them to generate no rubbish whatsoever. Not a single black bin liner on the doorstep. Astonishingly, 75 families got in touch to say they'd try it. And so, too, did my family (even though we don't live in Bath or North East Somerset). And if we can do it, believe me, anyone can.
A WEEK OF WASTING LESS
DAY 1: The binmen have just spent 10 minutes removing the wall of bin bags from our front garden, and I'm gripped by a terrible panic: where on earth, over the next seven days, is all our junk going to go? My family, inevitably, are sceptical. "It'll never work," says Rosie, 14. "I mean, we fill the big bin in the kitchen every single day." "Look, mum, I know we're going to have to cheat," says Elinor, 12. "Shall I take a small bin bag with me to school each day and chuck it in the big bin there?"
I have, of course, had heaps of helpful advice from Sarah Raban, the waste guru at Bath and North East Somerset Council. The good news is that she and her partner have, through careful management, reduced their waste to almost zero - last week they threw away just three bits of rubbish, and two were packaging from a late-night kebab that they bought "by mistake".
Most of the waste in a bin bag, says Sarah, is generated in the kitchen: most of it is food waste and non-recyclable food packaging. So the trick, she says, is to plan meticulously: plan every meal, strategise every morsel. Allow for every appetite, but don't over-cater. And don't, of course, buy food that comes wrapped in plastic containers.
All of this is grave news, since my usual habit is to do a large weekly shop online: much of it arrives in packaging. What's more, I tend to cook huge amounts of food (when you've got four kids and they've got lots of hungry friends, you never know how many you're catering for). All of this, clearly, has to change.
DAY 2: The easiest way to cut out packaging is to shop in a market and at a butcher, so I get sausages, potatoes and carrots for supper, with no trace of plastic in sight. The potato and carrot peel go into a bucket under the sink as stage one in my composting drive, although my husband Gary is worried that our compost bin is uncomfortably close to the house, given the size of our tiny garden. He's convinced it's going to be smelly, and will attract rats. Composting, he says, would be fine if the council would take away your food waste and compost for the entire area: but given the size of our garden, and the amount of waste we have, it's not practical. I forsee industrial amounts of compost: maybe we can give it away to people en route to the allotments at the end of our road.
DAY 3: Waste campaigners have worked out that we each throw away more than £430 of food per year, and it's clearly hard to defend in a world where millions go hungry. I try cooking smaller amounts so that plates are cleared; I also try allowing the children to help themselves, in the hope that less food is left on plates. Miraculously this seems to work, although it's enabled Catriona, four, to get away with eating only the most minuscule amount of casserole. When I ask Sarah what I can do with the few scraps we have generated, she suggests that we could keep chickens: they eat anything, apparently. It's a nice idea, but it isn't going to work for us.
DAY 4: It's Saturday and I have a dinner party planned, but no time to cook. My usual get-out is M&S but - horror - when I arrive there I realise that I can buy almost nothing from them: almost everything I'd choose is encased in packaging that can't be recycled, at least not by my local authority. A takeaway would yield the same problem.
DAY 5: We read two newspapers each weekday and four on a Sunday (well, we are both journalists). Newsprint, of course, is recyclable, but it does seem a bit of a shame that we have to junk so many bits of the paper without even reading them - so much goes straight into the orange recycling bags.
DAY 6: Fridge management, says Sarah, is a key ingredient in the zero waste campaign: but alas, my fridge is in its usual state of disarray. Leftovers are turning to mould, and I've over-bought in my latest foray to the market, so I've now got sprouting potatoes and wizened carrots to dispose of. I admit defeat and defrost a packet of chicken from the freezer, painfully aware that the plastic packaging will only find a home in a black bin liner.
DAY 7: Our day of reckoning. The good news is that our bin bag tally is definitely down: the bad news is, it's not down to zero. We have one rather well-filled bag to put out on the pavement this week, and a bigger-than-normal collection of orange recycling bags, reflecting our new-found interest in buying only items that can be ecologically disposed of. A quick examination of the contents of our one black bag reveals it's mostly cooked food and plastic packaging.
HOW WE DID: I'm surprised by how much rubbish we've been able to save, with just a bit of forward planning (although I am very, very disappointed that I won't be able to shop in Marks & Spencer any more). I'm also surprised by how painless it's been - composter and threat of chickens aside.
It's not actually that difficult to make a few straightforward changes to reduce a family's weekly waste. What is clearly extremely difficult, though, is going from less rubbish to zero rubbish. I can't see that happening in my house: not for a long time, anyway. But the binmen, when they come this week, may be just a bit surprised by the absence of black bags, for once, outside our front gate.
Going zero: the secrets
Don't buy more than you need. A large proportion of domestic waste is cooked food, so get clever with leftovers. Boycott over-packaged goods - packaging makes up around a third of household waste. Buy fruit and vegetables loose (they're usually cheaper that way) and avoid packaged food and disposable items, including razors and nappies. Declare war on plastic bags. Take bags when you go shopping and always keep a plastic bag on you for unexpected purchases.
Never throw out plastic bags. Reuse them or donate them to local shops for reuse. Opt for reusable food containers and use the plastic covers on newspaper supplements to wrap foods and sandwiches. Reuse jars for food storage. Repair and recondition clothing, shoes and furniture rather than buying new. Reuse old fabrics as cleaning cloths instead of disposable cloths and wipes. Use rechargeable batteries and opt for low-energy lightbulbs.
Choose products packaged in recyclable materials. Donate and pass on still-useful but unwanted items. Compost your kitchen waste, or get a wormery, which produces excellent fertiliser. Most local authorities have cut-price offers on composters and wormeries. And remember to look for recycled products when you are shopping.
For more ideas on how to cut your household waste, see www.wasteonline.org.ukReuse content