Updated: Jun 5
I have been away from my laptop for a while, working to get the Spanish farm to a ‘comfortable’ standard- it now boasts a dry composting toilet (a blog on these soon for those who love to read about toilets), a bed of pallets, a functioning kitchen, solar panels complete with some plug sockets and lighting and the beginnings of a small vegetable garden. Without electricity until yesterday, it’s been a romantic and techno-free period, very refreshing, given how much I think and write about the issues of modern technology, but I have certainly missed doing a blog.
This post is a short Q & A with zero-waste hero Grant Mercer from Smaller Footprints (www.smallerfootprints.co.uk), a beautiful zero-waste shop based in Clifton, Bristol. The Q & A was an idea we had while at the farm together a couple of weeks ago.
So, without further ado…
Grant, can you tell us some facts to help us visualise how big a waste problem we have?
I’ll keep it to one. Earth Overshoot is the day of the year at which we would have used more from nature than it is able to renew in the whole year. This year, reaching us sooner than ever, that day came on July 29th. We need to keep more oil in the sea bed, more nitrogen in the soil, more trees standing and more of our planets remaining species alive (or at least not let our heavy-handed interference be the reason for their end).
What single item do you think can make the biggest difference?
Probably because I’ve never used one, this item didn’t come to mind immediately; I think it’s the Mooncup. It’s a small, reusable menstrual cup that collects, rather than absorbs, menstrual blood. It was actually invented in 1937 by an American woman but wartime rationing of rubber impacted production and it didn’t popularise before disposable alternatives took control. Huge credit to the women who’ve tried it because it’s clearly quite a change from what most have become used to.
Why did you open a zero waste shop?
To challenge the status quo that was/is a throwaway culture. To fulfil a long-held ambition to work for myself. To escape a previous job that didn’t inspire. To bolster the argument for having a child / children of my own genetics (if you’re reading this kids… love you). To contribute to the fight against human-caused climate catastrophe(s).
What items would you recommend someone to carry with them to make a zero waste (or at least decreased waste) life easier?
Many people will already have an excess of plastic or cotton bags laying around at home. They’re lightweight, foldable / malleable and already in existence and should be re-used before we fuel the demand for anything new to be created. Or yoghurt pots, ice cream tubs, jars or tins of any description. That said, we do sell some items to help people to adapt to the habit of re-using and therefore reducing waste.
We also sell beeswax wraps and bowl covers which are great alternatives to cling film and beeswax pouches that are good for carrying snacks that may otherwise be put in a single-use bag.
What are your thoughts on recycling?
It’s towards a last resort. First of all we should be refusing to consume things that we don’t need or, at least, things that don’t bring us real pleasure or meaning beyond a marketing-induced micro dose of shopping satisfaction. We should be reducing, re-using, re-purposing and/or repairing before we decide to recycle. The energy it takes to recycle various materials varies but in all cases, if expending that energy can be delayed, then it should be.
Can shopping by weight help resolve other waste issues, such a food waste?
Yep. At Smaller Footprints people are free to take tiny quantities if they just want to try something for the first time, if they have limited cupboard space, or if their recipe only requires a small amount of something they’re unlikely to need again in a while.
Is it more expensive to buy zero waste?
There are some items where our organic offering is cheaper than supermarkets’ non-organic options. However supermarkets, with all of their space, are able to offer perhaps eight different brands of basmati white rice (for example) all at different price points, we can offer only one. So it depends what choices you previously made. Most of our edible items are sourced through worker co-operatives who pride themselves in Fair Trade practices and still we are, I estimate, comparable on price overall. It becomes more complicated if you factor the answer to the previous question; if we’re helping to reduce food waste there’s a saving to the customer (and the environment) that’s not easily measurable. Then there are items that are environmental and economic no brainers such as mouthwash tablets in a glass jar which supermarkets, to my knowledge, just don’t offer.
Is it just plastic that we should be avoiding or are there other products that are as detrimental to the natural world?
I had this conversation with a group of school students recently, they were remarkably aware not just of the negatives of plastic but of its benefits and also of the pros and cons of paper and glass.
I recently saw an Instagram post reminiscing on supermarket shelves from decades ago with rows of glass coca cola bottles. Glass is very heavy compared to plastic, so while it is made from sand and doesn’t directly contribute to co2 being moved from the seabed to the atmosphere, it does require more fuel to have transported which indirectly contributes in the same direction. Paper biodegrades and therefore poses less risk to wildlife but in doing so releases greenhouse gases. I’m not sure how they compare when all factors are considered but I do know that we should avoid using any of them in a single-use fashion.
Could you summarise your philosophy on living an ethically conscious life?
I think we’re inevitably going to value our own wellbeing first and foremost but an ethically conscious life has found a way to place high value on the wellbeing of other living things as well – people, animals, and all of the natural world. I often consider what the impact would be if everyone were to do the thing I’m considering doing, in an attempt to try and make choices whose outcome will be net positive. Looking at how much we consume in developed nations (food, fuel, fashion etc.), it’s clearly very hard to not have a chunky impact. I think it’s important not to take on too much emotional burden but a healthy amount of personal responsibility is necessary from us all, whilst we collectively move society towards (hopefully) less destructive ways of living.
Love Ben and Grant