The strange things that get into bins

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During my time as a Zone Warden at Colchester Borough Council, I’ve been asked some unusual and intriguing questions – from “Can I still recycle paper if it’s crumpled into a ball?” (yes) to “I found a dead bird, can I put it in my food waste bin?” (no).

There’s nothing wrong with a curveball question – it keeps me sharp! It’s a bit different, though, when strange things start cropping up in recycling and rubbish containers.

At lunch on Wednesday, I was chatting to some of my colleagues in the collection crews. They told me about some rather peculiar items found in people’s sacks, bags and bins.

  • A whole paving slab
  • Live gun ammunition
  • A bag containing four party balloons, still blown up
  • Various knives
  • A 4.5ltr bottle full of whisky

So there you have it – we collect waste and recycling from Zones 1 to 6, plus the Twilight Zone!

Obviously, some of these examples shouldn’t have been anywhere near the rubbish. The paving slab should have been taken to a local Recycling Centre, where clean building materials can be recycled as hardcore.

Live ammunition must be surrendered at a police station or to a registered firearms dealer.

Balloons aren’t usually recyclable, but are best deflated before being put in the black bag or bin – apart from anything else, you won’t have the shock of a sudden bang from your rubbish when they pop! Knives should be wrapped in newspaper and placed in your general waste, while unwanted liquid should be poured out of bottles before they are recycled.

As well as things that don’t belong in the collection, there are some surprising items that are recyclable.

  • Bones and shells – Food waste
  • Clean kitchen and toilet roll – Paper
  • Cigarette packets (with foil removed) – Paper
  • Aerosol cans – Green box
  • Biscuit and baby milk tins – Green box
  • Worn-out white garden sacks – Clear bag for plastics
  • Plastic cereal liners – Clear bag for plastics
  • Bedding from non-meat-eating animals – Garden waste

The Council’s website has a  list of recyclable materials. If you have something unusual and aren’t sure whether it could be recycled or reused, check out Recycle This – it’s one of my favourite websites and is full of ingenious ideas!

If you’re still not sure where your unwanted item should go (or you’d like to test me!), leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help.

Plastic gives the whole planet the blues

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Did you watch Blue Planet II over the winter? I knew it was on, but I was so caught up with work and Christmas that I never watched it.

It wasn’t until the final episode that I started to see it all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

People who never usually post much about the environment were suddenly talking about the amazing creatures that live in the oceans, the clever techniques used to film them and, most of all, the enormous damage that humans are wreaking on them through our rubbish, especially plastic.

Well, obviously that caught my attention and last weekend, I finally got a chance to watch the last episode. It’s very powerful – you can see a clip about the impact of plastic on albatrosses on the BBC website.

In some parts of the ocean, there are over half a million pieces of plastic for every square kilometre!

Something that Sir David Attenborough said at the end of the Blue Planet II series struck home for me: “We are at a unique stage in our history – never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet and never before have we had the power to do something about it.”

That perfectly sums up something I’m always telling people. So often I hear people saying “There’s so much waste, the stuff I recycle is just a drop in the ocean” – but actually, what we do as individuals is tremendously important to our planet. The more plastic we each recycle, the less needs to be made. When you recycle plastics at the kerbside in Colchester, they’re processed in the UK or Europe (none goes to China) and turned into new products, helping to protect our environment.

The average UK household produces an entire tonne of waste each year. You have the power to make a big difference!

Sounds like a massive responsibility… but actually, cutting down on plastic is really easy! Because of my relentless nagging, we’ve always recycled a lot in my house, but since hearing about the plastic problems in the ocean we’ve made some more little changes. Now we use (and waste) less than ever!

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If everyone reading this uses less plastic, all our little drops in the ocean could add up to a sea of change!  Tell your friends and family and help Colchester to do better.

How to reduce your food waste

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I had so many views on my post about what happens to your food waste, I thought it would be a good idea to look at ways of reducing your food waste, before it even gets to the recycling caddy. Here are my 5 top tips! 

Know how to keep your food fresher for longer 

Did you know that the way we store our food can make a big difference to how long it stays fresh? My first top tip is to keep your fruit and vegetables in the fridge, they really will last longer! However, bread will go hard in the fridge, so best to keep that in a bread bin. 

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Know the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’

The dates on packaging can get confusing, so I hope these explanations help the next time you look at something and think about throwing it into your caddy 

  • A ‘use by’ date is found on perishable foods that could make us ill if we eat them after this date.  
  • A ‘best before’ date refers to the quality, rather than food safety. Eating food after this date is unlikely to be harmful. Eggs are the only exception, which should be consumed before their ‘best before’ date. 

Only cook what you need 

How often do you find you’ve cooked way too much pasta? I know it used to happen to me all the time! But it’s easier than you think to get it right. These are the guides that I found helped:  

  • A mug of rice will feed three people, watch this great 30-second video 
  • A portion of uncooked pasta should be the size of your clenched fist, this may look small but it doubles in weight when cooked 
  • A serving of meat should be the size of the palm of your hand (but not including your fingers) 
  • A serving of fish, such as haddock or Pollock, is the size of your hand, including your fingers 

Lovely leftovers 

It’s amazing how many meals you can make from one chicken. My favourites are curry, fajitas and risotto – be inspired by these recipes.  If you have cooked too much for your dinner, put some in a tub or bag and pop it in the freezer. Then if you’re going to be home late one night it’s a great ‘ready meal’ for one! 

Planning your meals

As I mentioned in my post last week, this is my best top tip for saving money on your food bills and wasting less. Before you go shopping, check your fridge, freezer and cupboard and think about what you need for the week and write a list. That way you won’t shop for things you already have. 

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But don’t forget to use your food waste caddy for all those little bits that can’t be re-used like tea bags, egg shells, banana skins and more! All our household food waste is collected weekly. If you don’t have a food caddy, pick a free one up from your local pick up point (sorry this is not available in flats at the moment unless directed by your landlord). 

So get ready, steady, cook!  

A simple checklist for easy spring cleaning

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Every year, my wife and I make grand plans for spring.  

Keeping a weekend clear, we list all the things we want to achieve around the house, from re-grouting the bathroom tiles to clearing out what we call the Everything Else Cupboard (the one we open very carefully, in case all the junk falls out).  

When the Spring Clean Weekend arrives, we’re full of motivation, imagining the beautiful, clean, well-organised home we’ll be relaxing in by Sunday evening. 

Of course, it never happens. The grouting takes longer than expected, the cupboard turns out to be full of souvenirs that need to be reminisced over for at least two hours, the guinea pig suddenly needs the vet and we never get as much done as we planned.  

This year is going to be different. 

Speaking to friends and family, it seems everyone has this problem, so I’ve come up with a new four-step spring cleaning ‘system’ that means you can get all your jobs done – and have time to relax: 

1) List all the rooms in your house on a piece of paper. 

2) Note up to three things you want to achieve in each room. 

3) Each weekend from now onwards, complete your tasks for one room. 

That’s only three jobs per weekend. Easy, right? Even if you have a big house, you should be able to get everything done during the spring using the ‘Reece Method’.  

There’s one more step, which is hugely important to keep our environment clean too: 

4) You’re bound to find all sorts of junk you no longer want. Put it all in a corner, and once your jobs are finished for the weekend, recycle it! 

Much of what you throw out may still be useful to someone else. If your family and friends don’t want it, consider donating it to a charity shop. Clean clothes, furniture, toys, ornaments, books and media are all welcomed – a quick Google search will show up your nearest charity shops and the types of donations they take. 

Another option is to use community Facebook pages to give things away or sell them for a small charge. We got rid of an old coffee table through our local Facebook selling page last year – it was picked up within three hours! To get as much interest as possible, include a photo of the item in your post. 

Your trash is someone else’s treasure – unless it’s broken, of course. Even then, it might contain important materials that can be recycled to save our planet’s resources. Small electrical items like radios, toasters and calculators can be taken to the pink bin at your local library to be recycled, even if they don’t work any more 

Other waste can be taken to your nearest Essex County Council Recycling Centre – wherever you can, separate out any parts that are recyclable. It all helps! 

If you have anything really bulky and can’t take it to the tip yourself, the Council does offer a special collection for larger items at a small charge. You can book this via the Colchester Borough Council website. 

Lastly, if you’re anything like us, your house is full of the guilty evidence of empty Christmas selection tins. Don’t throw them away – they’re brilliant for tidying away smaller items like photos, receipts, screws, nail polishes, baubles… just label them so you know what’s what next time you have a spring clean!

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Recycling collections make way for Santa

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Can you believe it’s nearly Christmas? It certainly feels like it, with all the snow we had last week. Only days now until Father Christmas flies through the sky on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, bringing presents for the children of Colchester.

My son was concerned that Santa might not be able to get in as we don’t have a chimney, but we’ve fixed that by making him a special decorated ‘Santa key’ from cardboard and wrapping paper scraps. Hanging it on the outside of the door means the merry gift-bringer will definitely be able to enter on Christmas Eve, and I’ve assured my son that there’s ample parking for his sleigh at the roadside.

Of course, to accommodate Santa’s arrival and the bank holidays, other magical vehicles will be adjusting the day of their visits during Christmas week. 

I’m talking, of course, about the recycling and rubbish trucks that will come to take away all the wrapping paper, toy packaging, food waste and general evidence of our celebrations once Christmas Day and Boxing Day have passed. Lots of people have been asking me whether their schedules are changing over Christmas and the answer is yes, but only for one week.

Between 25 and 30 December, all our recycling and rubbish collections are going to be one day later than usual. For example, if your normal collection day is Tuesday, your containers will be picked up on a Wednesday instead. New Year’s Day Bank Holiday won’t affect collections, so all you need to remember is to put your rubbish out a day later than usual between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve.

The order of your Green and Blue weeks will stay the same, and collections will go back to your usual day the following week. If you live in a flat with a communal collection point, your collections will return to normal from Wednesday 27 December.

OK, our collection vehicles might not be magical, strictly speaking, but they are part of a process that turns your household rubbish into amazing, useful things. Most of the extra rubbish we generate over Christmas can be recycled:

  • Wrapping paper and cracker parts can go into your clear paper recycling sack, unless it’s covered in glitter or metallic foil, in which case it should go in the black general waste.
  • Turkey bones and other food scraps should go in the food bin. Many leftovers can be frozen or reused – find a feast of recipes at www.lovefoodhatewaste.com
  • Christmas trees can be sawn up and placed in your garden waste or given to St Helena Hospice with a donation – sign up for the charity’s Treecycle scheme at www.sthelenahospice.org.uk/get-involved/christmas-tree-cycle.aspx
  • Tinfoil from turkey and roast potatoes can be rinsed and then put into your glass and cans box.
  • Plastic trays from party food are fully recyclable and can be put into your clear plastic recycling bag.
  • Plastic nets used to store nuts, oranges and other produce can also go into the plastics recycling.
  • Unwanted presents might not be recyclable, but can be given to charity shops… or even re-gifted (don’t worry, I won’t tell)!

Every time you recycle something this Christmas, you’re giving a gift to our planet. Did you know that recycling just one wine bottle saves enough energy to power a home stereo for 24 hours? I think that’s pretty magical.

This is my last blog before Christmas – me and the other Recycling Zone Wardens will be out and about over the next week, though, so feel free to ask us your recycling-related questions, or leave me a comment! I wish you all a very merry Christmas, however you’re spending it, and a happy New Year.

See you in 2018!

Out with the old and in with the new

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Some of our Christmas traditions are a bit strange, when you think about it – like bringing a tree indoors and dressing it up! It’s even stranger when you think that all those real trees have to be thrown out in January.

Luckily, the wonderful people at St Helena Hospice are one step ahead and are already inviting people to register for their Colchester Treecycle scheme. 

For a suggested donation of £7.50, they will collect your real tree from your home on Saturday 6 January. They’ve covered postcode areas CO1 to CO9 for years and are now expanding to CO13 too. All you need to do is registerbefore noon on 4 January to receive the service. Donations go to the hospice, which supports local people with incurable illnesses and their families. 

I’ve already got some presents to go under my tree. On Saturday, my son came downstairs with his yearly Christmas wish list. Father Christmas and I have reviewed it, and although we agreed that he probably won’t be getting the “pet octopus” that he asked for, the rest of the Christmas shopping and wrapping has now begun! 

Some of his new toys involve batteries, whichI’m sure he’ll wear out pretty quickly. I prefer reusable ones – recharging saves me a trip to dispose of them and are much cheaper in the long run. Disposable batteries can’t be put in your black bin or sacks, because they’re hazardous and can leak toxic chemicals. If you have some, look for a battery container at your local library to dispose of them safely. Many supermarkets take them too.  

My own wishlist is much less exciting… I’m hoping for a new electric toothbrush! It might surprise you to hear that the old one, which broke recently, won’t have to go in the bin. You might not think of toasters, hair straighteners or music players as recyclable, because they contain so many different materials. However, many libraries in Essex have pink bins where you can recycle what’s called “small WEEE” (I’ll try not to make any jokes – it stands for Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment).  

Everything in those bins gets dismantled and, wherever possible, used again. Electronics are full of complicated, expensive parts that can either be reused or broken up and recycled for the materials. That goes for broken Christmas lights too.

The WEEE bins are only for small things that can be easily carried, but if you’ve got larger electronics, you can take them to the Recycling Centre or book a bulky collection.

All this shopping and planning is putting me in the festive mood – I’m really looking forward to Christmas this year, even if it isn’t going to involve a real live octopus! How are your preparations going?

Leave the big footprints to Santa

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Houses shining with decorations. Piles of wrapped presents. Tables (and stomachs) groaning with food. I love Christmas, but even I recognise how wasteful it can be.

Me and my wife are pretty environmentally friendly, but we often let it slip at this time of year. There’s so much in the shops to tempt us, from special food to throwaway gifts, and it’s all justified spending – after all, it’s Christmas!

This year, we’re making a big effort to make our festivities more sustainable and avoid that January guilt when we look at our rubbish pile (and our budget… and our waistlines!). My colleague Trevor at the Recycling and Waste depot has been doing this for years… he says it’s easy to have a wonderful Christmas without leaving a big footprint on the environment. All you need to do is follow five simple steps:

It’s about people, not things

The shops are stuffed with novelty gifts that look like an easy present solution, but do your friends and family really want train-shaped shot glasses or desktop basketball hoops?

Instead of quick buys that’ll be shoved in a cupboard by New Year, give something they’ll really want. Experience days and vouchers are always well-received. If you’re good at crafts, make something they’ll treasure. For a close friend or relative, consider making your own ‘coupons’ promising them the most precious gift – your time, whether it’s a day out, control of the TV remote for an evening or a job around the house.

Save paper

Every Christmas the UK uses enough wrapping paper to circle the equator nine times! Make your own cards and wrapping paper from magazine pages, music sheets, old maps and so on, or give reusable gift bags. The Japanese art of Furoshiki, wrapping presents in printed fabric, is catching on in a big way – you can use a pretty scarf and make it part of the gift.

If you do use paper, remember foil and glitter can’t be recycled. And keep the fronts of the cards you get – they’ll make awesome gift tags next year.

Don’t bring it home

There’s nothing festive about plastic bags, no matter how bright and jolly they look – they are terrible for the environment. When you go Christmas shopping, take your own bags. If you forget, you can put purchases from different shops in the first bag you’re given, instead of collecting new ones each time.

Some shops also now offer e-receipts, which save paper, are harder to lose and easier to find.

Clear your freezer

Use frozen food in the weeks leading up to Christmas so the freezer is as empty as possible on Christmas Eve. That way, there’s plenty of room for leftover party grub. There are loads of delicious, easy, clever recipes to use up every bit of your food at www.lovefoodhatewaste.com

Plan meals and parties

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If you’re having multiple groups of friends and family over, try to plan things so you don’t buy too much food. We’re having a roast turkey on Christmas Day. I know there’s going to be lots left over, so I’m also buying part-baked rolls and having friends over for turkey sandwich lunch on Boxing Day.

We’ve stocked up on plastic containers too, so we’re ready to freeze lots of roast potatoes and turkey-based dishes… looking forward to a stress-free, budget-friendly New Year with all that delicious ready-made food just waiting to be snaffled straight from the freezer!

None of that looks too difficult to me. I’m looking forward to reaching New Years’ Day with a full freezer, a happy bank account and no guilty conscience this year!

If you’re joining in, leave a comment letting me know how you get on… I’d love to hear any tips you have!