November 26, 2013, by Helen Whitehead

My family and their rubbish

I recently returned from a family holiday to Broadstairs in Kent, a largely unspoilt 19th century seaside resort where my father grew up. There were three generations of us in an 1880s town house (my elderly parents, my middle-aged brother, sister-in-law and myself, and my two young nephews), and two nationalities – British and German.

Broadstairs2013Spending a few days in such close proximity, I’ve been struck by the difference in attitudes towards waste and rubbish within my own family. First, my parents: they are ambivalent towards recycling. They will do it if it is easy but they resent making extra effort – not just because this may be physically tiring for them, but because they see it as the responsibility of local government. Despite living through wartime and rationed Britain they waste quite a lot of food – this is mainly due to over-buying and poor planning ahead.

For my German sister-in-law, recycling is part of normal routine and food waste is just not allowable. She will go as far as containerising leftover curry and rice and asking hotel staff to reheat it for her – this is not something that most Brits would do at the moment. She plans ahead and insists that her children finish the food on their plates. She finds Britain quite poor when it comes to recycling and is used to a system where packaging is returned to the supermarket.

My brother and myself gladly recycle as far as possible and we try to avoid food waste. I will take a container with me to a restaurant for the leftovers and I also save all leftover food at home for our elderly dog. I’m aware that I will need to prevent food waste in the first place when my dog is no longer with us. In the Broadstairs house there were no instructions about what waste could be placed in the recycling bin outside, and no guidance as to local recycling facilities. All our waste went into one kitchen bin and so I spent an unpleasant few minutes each day sorting through the ‘yuk’ to extract the cardboard packaging, tins and glass which I hope were the right things to place in the recycling bin.

As for my young nephews – they are in their ‘must have’ phase – they have no conception yet of sensible buying and consumption. But they do know that they are expected to eat all the food on their plate!

So what were the key factors that I observed. First, that avoiding waste and recycling is more difficult when you are on holiday. The routines disappear and our more wasteful selves take over. We give ourselves a holiday from our ‘good behaviour’ as well as from work. Secondly, that the good behaviour has to be made as easy as possible as a high percentage of us will not or cannot make extra effort. Third, that we do have an opportunity with our children to form good habits that can stay with them for life – as long as it is not too difficult.

My experience on holiday seems to mirror the experience of many of our students on our online course about Sustainability.  Over the last few weeks, students have been carrying out waste audits in their homes.  Most have found it difficult to separate waste at source and are therefore sending recyclable materials to landfill. Most are worrying about food waste, because they don’t have the facilities or the knowledge to compost.  I think there is a business opportunity here to solve a problem – we need a simple solution that will allow students to behave in their student accommodation as they would at home. Students shouldn’t feel like they are on holiday……

Written by Sarah Speight

Posted in FoodSustainabilitywaste