The way to sustainability is not backwards but forwards

Our journey towards a zero waste home proved to be a difficult one, but also unexpectedly enlightening.

Having spent the first few months weighing all our household rubbish, we first came to the realisation that we, as a family, were producing an incredible amount of waste. Plastic was our number one ‘output’. Having the whole family helping to weigh the bins and track progress did create a real interest in this issue, especially with my son who discovered the exciting process of weighing a bin bag at 6:00am before the bin truck showed up.

My first reaction was to blame supermarkets for their excessive use of packaging. I had to find a way to buy loose fruit and vegetables in farmers’ markets and meat at a butcher. In other words, I was trying to go back in time trying to find independent shops where I wouldn’t have to buy products packed in trays. It turned out to be quite laborious, and particularly demotivating for the family. The independent shops were quite far away from our house and, even more problematic, we had to spend hours cooking at home when both my wife and I work quite long hours. It was simply not working and we pretty quickly drifted back to our old habits, buying all our food from local supermarkets with the unavoidable ready to eat meals.

I believe our mistake was that we only thought of possible solutions looking backwards, remembering how things were before supermarkets took over the whole food market, instead of looking at what new technologies and innovative companies could offer.

Things finally changed because of two main breakthroughs. The first one is when we realized that the local milkman was delivering a pretty good range of food products (and a decent range of organic ones) in compostable packaging. They deliver any liquid in glass bottles that they retrieve at each delivery. And the icing on the cake: the delivery is done in electric vehicles! This is a very interesting adaptation of a very old traditional type of business to the needs and challenges of modern society.

The second breakthrough was when I acquired an amazing food processor that enables us to cook delicious meals easily requiring literally zero cooking skills. Whilst this suits me just fine, my wife was initially sceptical: she enjoys cooking and has done so all her life and worried that the machine was for culinary dummies. Having experienced the efficiency of the machine and its ability to secure flawless sauces and mashed potato consistencies, however, she is a convert. As well as allowing us both to set meals in motion and move away to handle bath time, domestic chores and email inboxes, we have also seen how the machine massively cuts down on our food waste, dish washing and the money we are spending on groceries because it requests specific weights and measurements, and dishes are easily freezable.

That happened just a month and a half ago, and within that time we have reduced our waste weight by a good third.

While my sustainability challenge may look quite anecdotal in the grand scheme of things, I think it gives an interesting example of how our path to a more sustainable way of living often also leads to life improvements and a more relaxed way of living.

 

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The case of the century

Beside the yellow vests demonstrating in France for the past two months, there was another significant event hitting the headlines in France in December 2018. Four NGOs including Greenpeace and Oxfam have launched a campaign to sue the French government over “insufficient” climate change action. This campaign is called “L’affaire du siècle”, in English: “the case of the century”. The idea is to force the French government to follow its commitments to protect its citizens. Environmental actions have often been used by French politicians during their campaign to gain the votes of a growing share of the population concerned by the damaging impacts of climate change. However, little has been done so far, even if some of those commitments are now written in the French laws, with clear targets set.

As a lever of pressure, NGOs launched an online petition to support their intention. In only two days, the petition received one million signatures! A national record in France. By early January 2019, it was not one but two million signatures. As a first step, a request was sent to the government asking for compensations and more importantly proof that its environmental commitments are being executed. The state has two months to reply before the case is brought to the court. If the NGOs win this case, the judge could sentence the government to implement all actions required to reach the objectives set by the law. This campaign was directly inspired from a similar law suit carried by the NGO ‘Urgenda’ in Holland.

So, what made this campaign so successful?
– First, the timing: The findings of the latest IPCC report were widely broadcasted in France. Biodiversity loss, devastating fires and other social and environmental impacts of climate change are making daily news.
– Second, the format: Suing the government is a direct confrontation. It’s a powerful symbol of what French political experts call the “ecological civil rights”.
– Third, the legitimacy: The four NGOs involved in this campaign are well known in France and have been historically involved in various actions for climate.
– Fourth, the voices: Some prominent French celebrities from various backgrounds (arts, media and web) talked about the initiative in a video (12 million views, unfortunately in French only).
– Fifth, social media: There was a great work done on social media to promote the campaign. Considering that the biggest supporters of those NGOs tend to be quite young, it was certainly a key factor to run a successful campaign.

On a side note, it is fundamental to note that the ‘yellow vests’ movement was triggered by a new fuel tax that the government was trying to implement to force the reduction of fossil fuels. It is a fascinating case showing the critical importance of ‘system thinking’ in sustainability leadership.

Working towards a zero-waste home – 2

As a starting point, we needed to understand how much waste we were actually throwing away, so we started to weigh our bins each week, separating general rubbish from recyclable materials. We did this for a couple of months and calculated that each month we were throwing away, on average, 20kg of recyclable material and 50kg of general waste – that’s 240kg of recyclable material a year and 600kg of general waste for a family of four (including two children under 2). The most shocking part of this is that those staggering figures are significantly below average!  British residents throw away 592kg of waste per person per year!

This was an interesting realization as it acted as a real motivator at home: simply put, we throw away our own body weight in rubbish every 6 to 7 weeks.

We took a closer look at the content of our bins and looked for the easiest fixes. Besides nappies, it was packaging from ready to eat meals and products bought online that were the most prevalent, so we started by focusing on those. Getting rid of ready to eat meals simply meant that we had to cook from scratch more, but getting rid of packaging when buying vegetables turned out to be difficult because of the lack of alternative options. In London, most vegetables are bought in supermarkets in a tray and plastic film; there are only few specialised vegetable shops or markets where all fruits and veggies can be bought loose. We even looked for specialized bulk markets where we could potentially buy other food items without packaging but again the options were very limited. There is one bulk retailer in the whole of London!

What came as the biggest barrier to reducing our waste was how time consuming it is. We have to travel further and to more places to find the products we need. The lack of alternative options only highlights the responsibility that retailers have in the transition to a more sustainable consumption. In the meantime we will keep exploring various solutions and I hope we will have significantly reduced our household waste by the time I write my next post!

The impact of carbon emissions in the seafood industry

Dead Coral Reef 2

There are multiple aspects to the impact of climate change on the seafood industry. The most obvious are extreme weather events that pose a barrier to fishing activity for extended periods of time and potentially destroy entire fishing fleets. Aquaculture is also impacted by floods or hurricanes that can damage ponds and sometimes completely ruin future harvests. These issues could potentially be managed through the implementation of preventive measures and use of appropriate equipment.

However, climate change has one much more troubling impact on fisheries that threatens the resource itself: the acidification of oceans. We often forget how oceans interact with the atmosphere and their critical role as a carbon sink. Water can partly absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere becomes too high, the chemical reaction created results in the acidification of the oceans which is currently increasing at an unprecedented rate.  As of today, the acidity of the planet’s oceans is 26% higher than it was in preindustrial times, but this is only the beginning and experts predict the increase to be by about 170% by 2100 if emissions continue at their current level (IOC, SCOR, 2013).  Lots of marine organisms such as fish, molluscs and corals are very sensitive to water acidity. Many of them are likely to disappear and ecosystems will be completely transformed in ways we currently have trouble to anticipate.

Most stakeholders in this industry do not fully understand how carbon emissions can impact fisheries and, contrary to water pollution or overfishing, this is a topic that is rarely addressed when discussing sustainability in seafood. For instance, a large amount of fresh tuna is still sent by air to high end markets such as Japan. Quality perception favours fresh products over frozen products which generate significantly lower carbon emissions because they can be exported by ocean freight. There is substantial work to do to educate consumers on the numerous benefits of frozen food and the latest technological developments that enable producers to maintain the quality of their product throughout the cold chain.

Contrary to what we might think in Europe, seafood is not a marginal industry. Fish accounts for 17% of the animal protein consumed worldwide, and over 50% in many developing countries (FAO, 2016). The supply chains are often complex, involving dense transportation networks and there is no doubt this industry has its share of responsibility in addressing the issue of climate change.

References:

FAO (2016) THE STATE OF WORLD FISHERIES AND AQUACULTURE 2016.

IOC, SCOR, I. (2013) ‘Ocean Acidification Summary for Policymakers – Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World’, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, p. 26. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.

Working towards a zero-waste home

It is difficult to live in a developed country without feeling somehow baffled by the amount of rubbish we throw away on a daily basis. There is this slight sense of shame that most of us feel when we carry our large plastic bags to the wheelie bin. My shame turned into despair when I became a father and I realized that my bin was just not big enough anymore. We all have a pretty fair idea of where our general waste ends up: it’s either incinerated or disposed of in landfills. Neither of those options sound very sustainable.

Concerned by our impact on the environment, as individuals, but also as a species, most of us would therefore consider recycling a very convenient solution. It doesn’t dramatically change our way of living and consuming, we just need to make a small effort to remove recyclable materials from our rubbish. Sadly (without even considering the additional energy required to recycle and the pollution potentially generated in the process), there is one major issue with recycling: some materials such as plastics cannot be infinitely recycled.

So, is the only option to eliminate our waste once and for all? When I submitted the idea to my wife, her usual calm and methodical personality dear to the people of England was betrayed by a slight expression of panic. “We don’t have time for this,” was her first reaction: I told myself that this could be good material for my personal leadership challenge!

While trying to create change in my family and motivate them to look for zero waste solutions, we will measure our progress by weighing our weekly rubbish before disposing of it. In two years from now, I would like my bin to receive only a third of what we put in it today… Let’s the challenge begin!

rubbishbin-colour

Choice editing and the role of regulators

When I started my business as a frozen seafood importer, I was driven by the idea of creating a company in line with my values: we would supply products we are proud of, adhering to our ethical beliefs. However, I quickly realized that the challenge was much greater than I thought. The reality was that my colleagues and I are informed consumers, aware of what quality seafood is. On the contrary, most of our end consumers are making decision based merely on price.

Now, the world of frozen seafood is a very tricky one: producers and importers are never lacking creativity in finding ways to lower down the price of their products or at least giving the illusion of it. Would you believe me if I told you that the main ingredient imported in frozen seafood is not fish… but water? One of the most common practices in the industry is to add a layer of ice around the product. Initially, a thin layer of ice, counting for barely 3% of the product’s weight, was added to protect the fish from the effect of “freezer burn” which affects the taste and texture of the product. Nowadays, in order to compensate for the constantly increasing costs of raw material, the wide majority of frozen shrimps sold in the UK through small independent retailers contain 30% to 50% of water. While net weights are clearly stated on the packaging, UK consumers still go for the cheapest product regardless of the water content.

Shrimp on ice blockThis results in even more unsustainable supply practices pushing consumption, lowering down quality standards, and increasing energy use and GHG emissions. In order to add that much water to a shrimp, a factory has to freeze it two to three times in a row, adding a new layer of water each time resulting in as much additional energy consumption. Also, considering that farmed shrimps are mostly, if not exclusively, produced in tropical climates, transport-related carbon emissions for those products are 40% higher than they should be.

As a company, we have consistently refused to go down that path and promoted products free of unnecessary ice.  While fishmongers, who sell shrimps defrosted and therefore are technically sensitive, responded well to our approach, we did not sell one bag of frozen shrimp to Cash and Carry stores or independent grocery shops! They would not buy a product without enough water added to reach their target price. Choice editing might be an option for large retailers or well-established companies with relatively captive customers, but it is very challenging for smallholders who can only have a marginal effect on market trends, especially in a very scattered market made of small independent retailers.

In this specific context, one can wonder why regulators aren’t taking necessary measures to protect consumers and limit unsustainable production, which is also referred to as “citizen choice editing”. The general opinion to rely on businesses to bring more sustainable products to the consumers is valid to a certain extent but for some markets, the main driver of change is the policy makers who have the power to guide stakeholders to more sensible practices.