5 things I learned by taking the Zero Waste Challenge

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We had our first Waste Week at JH last week and it was a way for us to raise awareness about waste and recycling in general, change behaviours, so that we minimise wastage of all resources across the business and also in our own lives. As part of a team activity that week, our Business Development Manager, Andre Bienkowski took the zero-waste challenge and chose to eliminate packaging from his life. He shares his experience with us. 

To the utter amusement, bemusement and sometimes sympathy from my wife, I have always enjoyed spending time shopping for food. I gain great satisfaction from the process of planning meals, sourcing quality produce, simply navigating the aisles of food shops and of course finding a bargain. It gets me out and about thinking about my favourite thing: food!

This exercise (and the pedestrian exercise that comes with it) is most fulfilling for me when I shop at small businesses. Sure, there is the sustainability angle of supporting local producers; the whiff of an anti-establishment notion - sticking it to the big man; but most of all, it’s the interaction with passionate people who care for their product and the adventure of discovering quality, unusual ingredients.  

Roughly a year ago however, the nature of my food shopping expeditions changed drastically with the birth of my son and when we moved house. We moved a 2-minute walk away from a Tesco Extra and 5 minutes from an equally extra Sainsburys. My pilgrimages to Chinatown, New Malden, Borough and Brixton markets were replaced by the speed and convenience of the modern hypermarket. And my food shopping adventures took a tamer turn.

When invited to participate in the Zero Waste Challenge, I saw the perfect opportunity to ditch the supermarkets and rekindle my fondness for shopping at the smaller businesses and reconnect with the independent grocers of (South) London. I identified food packaging as the aspect of waste I wanted to take on. My goal was to buy food for my family over the week without accumulating a single piece of disposable packaging, whilst continuing the same meal styles and foods we’d normally eat. Sounds easy right? Boy was I wrong. 

At the outset, I must admit I cheated a little. I didn’t buy absolutely everything. I made it easier for myself at times by using some items that I already had in the house including herbs, spices, salt, sugar, oil, vinegar, tinned tomatoes, rice, butter & some yoghurt. Outside of these items however I bought everything. The challenge being that I couldn’t buy anything contained within packaging and this challenge forced me to completely change my shopping behaviour for the week.

To save you a long-winded account of my day-to-day meal planning and shopping experiences, I have highlighted five key observations and difficulties I faced over the week:

1)    Packaging and plastic are everywhere

The big eye opener for me on this challenge was the sheer amount of packaging associated with regular and ‘necessary’ food shopping and that actively avoiding it was difficult.

The vast majority of the time, everything is covered in some kind of packaging. Not all packaging is evil but it still counts. Take for instance shopping for meat in a supermarket. If you pick up anything from the aisle, it’s all packaged. Even if you brought your own Tupperware to the meat or fish counter, the member of staff serving you will likely use disposable gloves and a plastic sheet or bag to weigh the items on the scales - which are both binned.

A simple breakfast of toast, butter, jam and a cup of tea comes with so much packaging - bread in a plastic sleeve (even freshly baked bread, unless from a baker, will need something to hold it that has a barcode), butter is in a foil wrapper, jam is in a jar, tea if not loose comes in teabag which invariably comes in a foil-lined cardboard box and the milk for the tea comes in plastic (or glass bottle if you are lucky).

2)    The cost

When you buy everything loose and from different small shops, it all adds up. I didn’t keep every receipt but I noted that my weekly food budget was stretched. And the uncomfortable reality for me was that making this choice, it has a financial impact. The supermarkets simply can’t be beaten on price, so being able to engage in such an exercise is from a fortunate position. 

You could absolutely buy everything loose in a particularly well-known healthy food shop, but it also happens to also be the most expensive store there is! The positive aspect of this however is that the money you spend tends to go into supporting local businesses.

3)    The time 

Quite simply, going to more shops, further afield takes much longer than one location shopping. That detracts from whatever else one could be doing, in my case, the time spent with my family.   

4)    Drinks  

I didn’t drink anything other than tap water, tea & coffee all week. No alcohol (beer & wine) and no juice. About drinks containers - cans and bottles are infinitely better than any plastic. ‘Infinitely’, because that’s how many times they can be re-used when recycled correctly.

5)    Failures

Dairy: My wife is a cereal and coffee fanatic, I love butter. All of these things are tricky to get hold of without packaging and I couldn’t, so I gave in. I should have looked into the old-fashioned milkman. Whilst this would still have come in a glass bottle, I would have eliminated plastic whilst supporting a local business. But then, for sourcing dairy-free milk and butter alternatives, it simply would not be doable. (Yes, you could make your own oat/almond milk but that is another conversatin entirely.)

I’d urge you all to take a week’s challenge. I found it fascinating – and it’s not easy but it makes you reconsider your packaging habits. Planning is key to the exercise – whether it is to know where to source from or to make sure you carry your bags and tupperware with you to the shops. It will also encourage you to eat healthier and if you don’t already cook more from scratch, just like at JH! :)

Feel free to holler on abienkowski@justhospitality.co.uk, if you do want more tips ideas/recipes.