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.
Spending 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
The tourist industry are equally frustrated by this ‘holiday from recycling’ mentality that seems to exist. i spoke to a few of them recently and there were few success stories about how to encourage people to behave as sustainably as they did at home.
I think the thing with people who went through the very lean times is that they never, ever wasted a thing. They had meagre carbon footprints for most of their lives. If everyone had a ration of carbon footprint for their lifetimes, then they would have plenty to spare. But you are right this is a tragedy of the commons problem.
Sarah, I agree that recycling on holiday is certainly more difficult that when at home. The past 6 years our family has holidayed in this country (UK) rather than travel abroad. The information available with regard to what can and cannot be recycled locally varies hugely. Fortunately my two sons have grown up with with a mindset that everything that can be recycled will be recycled. We invariably end up with items of recycling, suitably rinsed and flattened, coming back with us to home where we know we can recycle them. It’s additional miles on the packaging but on balance I figure it’s better than dumping in to land fill or incineration.