I Tried to Be Completely Sustainable for a Week
The author rifling through bins. All photos: Bekky Lonsdale
It's lunchtime and I'm frying potatoes over a burning bin. My bones ache from walking everywhere, my hair is greasy enough to line a cake tin and I smell like someone who spent the whole of Boomtown eating Pot Noodles in a sleeping bag by the campfire. I'm cold because the heating has been off for days and icy wind rattles through my house's single-pane Victorian windows. I want warm car rides, true crime documentaries and beef burger juice rolling down my chin. I am so tired.
This is not the internal monologue of the strong female lead in Will Smith's latest movie, I, Robot Rebooted. This is what happens to your mind when you spend a week trying to be completely sustainable. Forgoing electricity and heating in the middle of winter might sound extreme, but it seems a fairly logical step when you consider how fucked the planet is. At the end of 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have just 12 years to "limit" a climate change catastrophe.
It's frustrating that so much of the conversation around limiting climate change has focused on the individual "doing their bit". Can composting apple cores and forcing the barista to use your KeepCup really facilitate change while supermarkets continue to wrap all their vegetables in plastic? What difference can one person make when the government is enabling fracking, approving a third runway at Heathrow and cancelling green energy subsidiaries, while cutting council budgets to manage our waste and recycling?
Still, as governments refuse to do anything meaningful, the impetus remains on the individual. If that's going to be the case for the foreseeable future, I'm afraid we're going to need to start doing a lot more than remembering to turn the lights off. So, for one week, I'm going to try to be as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible, foraging, planting seeds, dumpster dive and swapping loo roll for discarded Metro newspapers, all in the name of "every little helps".
To start, I need supplies. Obviously no meat or dairy – because farming animals uses an unbelievable amount of water, meaning vegetables only. I would visit my local allotment, but nothing sprouts until around May. Thinking ahead, I hoe the slither of soil in my garden, ready to nourish with composted food waste – an important piece of prep, since (good news!) experts reckon we have less than 60 harvests left before the world's soil is too exhausted to produce crops.
To ensure I don't starve to death for content, my next best option is Harringay Local Store, a farm shop full of lentil pasta and dads who got beard oil and The Prodigy's new album in their Christmas stockings. While I didn't grow this produce myself, some plus points: it's organic and locally sourced, meaning as few chemicals and air miles as possible.
It's time to cook. Chopping up my veg, I deposit all the scraps into my new indoor composting bin, which is easy enough. I've also bought a new outdoor composting bin for the leftover cooked bits.
My hobs are gas, which campaigners want banned in future housing developments since they use fossil fuels and produce greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, I decide to barbecue my vegetables over an open fire, using my metal kitchen bin.
I kick apart some chairs I found in a skip and use them for firewood. The method is less "infusing parsnips with hickory smoke" and more "burning potentially semi-poisonous paint to warm through bell peppers", but I'm not complaining: the finished dish has a nice smoked flavour, even if the potatoes are inedibly raw.
The main issue, as I later discover, is that burning wood is actually less sustainable than burning gas; it releases more CO2 while producing less heat. So: don't do that! Don't try to make things better and make them markedly worse! Instead, use induction hobs. Granted, the ones that come fitted as standard in all those identikit new-builds furnished by Tory voters absolutely suck, but also they're the most environmentally-sound option we have.
The following morning I focus on replacing my beauty products with stuff that won't potentially clog a fish's insides. Rather than throwing away endless makeup wipes, I buy reusable pads. I also buy a non-toxic deodorant, hairspray, perfume and shampoo, as studies have found that these products – along with other chemical products, like pesticides and printer ink – make up one half of all emissions in at least 33 industrialised cities.
Unfortunately for me, fake tan is often sold in plastic bottles and contains polluting chemicals, so I wave goodbye to my St Moritz and, following a recipe, mix cocoa powder with eco-friendly lotion. The resulting mixture smells great – more hot chocolate than the usual curried biscuits odour my arms give off – and the colour looks "burn always turns into tan" natural.
I also make a turmeric face mask that feels pleasantly exfoliating, but has the immediate downside of semi-permanently staining my face yellow.
Now that my skincare is sorted, I look into water consumption. Tap water drains energy because municipal treatment centres use up resources to purify water. Rainwater converters that feed into pipes cost upwards of £1,876 – a house hack that's only conceivable to the kind of padded gilet couples you see on Grand Designs.
I can, however, ingest rainwater another way, with one of those travel filter bottles marketed to men who model themselves after Bear Grylls, but in actuality, if push came to shove, would never drink piss. I scoop up some swampy brown pond water and watch my bottle work its magic, until the liquid sparkles and tastes as fresh as Fiji.
When there's nothing left to eat but tinned sweetcorn, it'll be useful to know how to forage, so I head to Hampstead Heath midweek for lunch. I'd rather not suffocate to death after eating a poisonous mushroom, so I meet with experienced forager Jason Irving, a man who sees sustenance where others see spots for dogs to piss. Alongside nettles, cleavers and sorrel, we find willowy grey sticks of hogweed seeds, crow garlic that – snapped under your nose – smells like chicken kievs, and jelly ear fungus, a mushroom that resembles a severed human ear.
Jason is full of poeticisms about the nature we harvest. Of gorse flowers he tells me: "Some say 'kissing is out of fashion when gorse is out of bloom', because it flowers all year round." Of ribwort plantain he says: "Native Americans call them 'white man's footsteps', because they flourish on trampled ground."
Trekking around the park, Jason reflects on society’s wastefulness, and how even those trying to live more sustainably can still make mistakes. "I saw some guy putting fat hen on his compost – [a plant with] a similar flavour to spinach. He was probably going to go and buy spinach seeds, not knowing that he already had an alternative in his hands."
I think back to when I was in my garden hoeing through delicate sprouting roots, plants that could have been dried out and made into herbal teas, or blended up with pine nuts to make pesto. I don't mention it.
Foraging might be a food-gathering mode free of fossil fuels or underpaid labourers, but it's not actively encouraged, with UK bylaws prohibiting the removal of plants. In 2010, the Corporation of London – which owns the Heath and Epping Forest – banned mushroom picking on the basis that it threatens ecology, even though research suggests it's just as harmful to walk over mushrooms as to forage them.
"People are against foraging because they think, 'You should leave nature alone,'" explains Jason. "But if you don't get food from foraging you'll still need food from somewhere, which will have an environmental impact. If you don't eat greens from the Heath, then you might need beans from Kenya or asparagus from Peru instead."
The next day, I make nettle soup with the leaves and mushrooms we collected. It's alright, but I need to bolster the flavour with other store-bought food.
Foraging might help use up what would otherwise be left to rot, but it's difficult to see how it could contribute in any significant and sustainable way. Given how long it takes, you may not be able to do it regularly; no one's going to get home at 7.30PM from their data analysis job and head off rooting for blackberries in the undergrowth. Also, if too many people foraged, presumably nature would just run out of stuff?
It's the final day of my sustainable week, and time for some dumpster diving.
I spend the night leering into commercial waste bins while people in APC anoraks off to nibble at small plates look at me funny. After finding nothing but Philadelphia pots, grease-soaked pizza boxes and Lurpak butter wrappers, the stigma of searching for food in a big iron drum catches up with me. My last hope is M&S, which according to dumpster diving Facebook groups is the promised land of food waste: full of red pepper hummus and beef bourguignon Dine In For Two meals. But when I get there, the bins are padlocked away behind an electric gate.
Dumpster diving has always been illegal, but more recently supermarkets have upped their security measures, sometimes even spraying blue paint on waste so it becomes inedible. One couple was arrested for taking chicken wings, bread and cheese from Tesco bins after their benefits had been sanctioned, and then publicly shamed.
After an unsuccessful evening, I'm craving the drip of oil off a lamb shawarma and the sting of my skin swelling pink under a hot shower. Before I lose control, I head home and defrost some Linda McCartney sausages. Does it count as self-sufficient when you steal food from your flatmate?
Some aspects of my ~journey~ will stay with me. I will enjoy feeling very Deliciously Ella about my new coconut shampoo. I can't wait to make Turkish sigara börek, with nettles where spinach would normally be, wrapped in filo pastry. But until I have more time or money, the other sustainable practices are going to have to go in the metaphorical and literal dustbin – the place reserved for my microbead-laden exfoliator.
The most accessible methods of sustainability remain tied to consumption, when really we should be consuming much less and reusing much more. Also, the benefits of the products I bought – though helpful in reducing waste and pollution – pale in comparison to the difference it would make if the 1.9 million tons of food wasted by the UK food industry every year was redirected to avoid imports of produce from overseas; or if the government actually followed expert advice and implemented green policies; or if big industry was forced to radically reduce emissions.
Again, it comes down to individual versus institutional responsibility. The future of sustainability is not in glamorous no-waste shops, the feeds of Instagram influencers selling us almond milk, or performative plastic straw bans. It's somewhere closer to entirely reframing how we live, and how companies are held to account for affecting our lives. Oh, and not lighting a fire to cook your dinner.