6 July 2018

How eco-friendly is Europe?

Hi there,

I've just returned from a longish greenhouse gas-glugging trip to the US and Europe. One of the things I was interested in from the outset is how eco-friendly these places are compared to NZ. How are these old, beautiful countries dealing with things like too much packaging and greenhouse gas emissions?

I'm not an expert judge, and as a tourist and a non-expert could only observe the surface of what was around. But here is what I noticed.


People love to grow things, everywhere. I adored the extensive vegetable gardens and orchards I saw from the train in Italy. They fill peoples' backyards. Everywhere there were allotments for apartment dwellers, and in Chamonix, the most beautiful town I've ever seen, the vege gardens are out the front. Fantastic! I even saw a vegetable garden outside the Notre Dame. It needed compost and mulch.

In Seattle, if you have no space for a vegetable garden, you just plant it on the street berm.

One of the struggling slightly raised beds next to the Notre Dame in Paris.


Firstly, why does this matter? From the June 2018 National Geographic magazine: "On some beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii as much as 15 percent of the sand is actually grains of microplastic".

I was an ignorant foreigner! I repeatedly sinned by doing the wrong thing in shops. For example, in Italian supermarkets, every single produce item had to be put in a plastic bag, weighed and stickered in the produce department - even down to a single onion or banana! The idea of having produce weighed as it goes through the check out has not caught on, and you either do it yourself or there is a person who stands in the produce department weighing it for you - but you can never really tell which it is. Perhaps the weighing man has popped out the back, or perhaps you have to do it yourself.

The produce bags did seem to be "biodegradable", although whether they actually biodegrade or just turn into minuscule pieces of plastic, I don't know.

If you take your own cloth produce bags, which I did at times, the stickers won't stick, and then you hold up the checkout while the operator goes to reweigh it for you.

I also would not wear gloves. What gloves? The plastic ones that are provided for customers to wear while they are selecting their fruit and vegetables! Presumably this is so they don't put germs on the items they leave behind. There is a bin to put them in when you've finished.

I had heard that everyone in France takes their own shopping bags, and that fruit was laser-tattooed instead of having stickers on it. Well, it ain't happening. There were quite a lot of reusable bags and baskets in France, but that was about all. I saw nobody with reusable produce bags; everything went into either pure plastic or paper bags with a plastic window. A lot of produce had stickers on it. Many people took plastic bags in the supermarket, although they often cost money.

The shelves were full of plastic-packaged food.

We spent a week in the UK and found a wealth of fantastic food. However, the packaging was terrible. I wish I had a photo of the fruit and vegetable section of Tesco Express, but it wouldn't be for the fainthearted. The supermarkets have taken on self-scan checkouts, and for easy scanning 99% of the produce is packaged (mushrooms, lettuce, broccoli) or stickered (e.g. apples) . Presumably this also creates demand for uniformly-sized produce because a big apple surely can't cost the same as a small one? This must lead to more food waste.

I did find an unpackaged onion, but this humble brown vege caused problems because I went to the self-scanner that couldn't weigh anything. There were weighing self-scanning checkouts, but they didn't take cards and I didn't have enough cash. I therefore had to go to a manned checkout to buy the lone onion.

In Seattle, the bags were paper (and they cost 10 c or something) and the produce was weighed at the checkout, however you presented it.

Our contribution

We made plenty of plastic waste ourselves. We stayed in Airbnbs everywhere, so could cook in the kitchen, but also wanted to make the most of trying local food, so generally one meal a day was from a restaurant (rare), bakery or cafe.

In one Italian patisserie I nearly had to fight not to have a slice of creamy cake wrapped in a bit of plastic so as not to smear, and put in a plastic container so as not to get crushed. The woman at the till wouldn't look at me as she took my money, and instead began a conversation with the person waiting behind me, and said that I was "complexio" or something similar. I gave up after that.

There are wonderful foodie places in the UK where you have a huge choice of things like Japanese, Mexican or sandwichy-type food and salads. These are reasonably priced and premade, and you choose what you want and take it to the counter. They are always comprehensively packaged in plastic, and you eat with plastic cutlery and throw the plastic in a bin on the way out. There must be hundreds of people through these places each hour.

This was a Japanese bowl in Seattle.

Maybe it's actually like this in NZ, too! I just don't eat out much here.


Yes, the recycling bins were impressive. Mostly you could separate waste and recycle it all. But this seemed  facile considering what was being produced. Convenience and economics were king.

The National Geographic article I mention above explains, though, that most of ocean plastic waste is from poor Asian countries with terrible waste management systems, and that the most important thing we could do is help them pay to collect and landfill the stuff. Instead there are vast quantities of dropped, uncollected rubbish washing into the rivers and sea. Not that there isn't plenty from western countries; it's just the volumes that differ.

It seems that collecting and managing plastic well, whether recycling it or not, is absolutely paramount to keeping it out of the oceans. I believe that using less is utterly important, but this is bigger than my righteous western ways. Desperately poor people can't afford a whole tube of toothpaste at once, and apparently in these countries the place is rife with discarded sachets of such things. That's all they can afford at one time; the sachets cannot be recycled; and nobody's collecting the rubbish. There may be discarded water bottles there, but there's no plumbing with clean, drinkable water delivering an alternative.

Just two days ago we were in Hong Kong. There is plastic packaging everywhere in restaurants and shops, but none lying around. There's a HK$1500 fine (NZ$300) for littering.

Clean energy

I'm not an expert on this. There were plenty of solar panels in Austria and Switzerland, particularly on farm buildings. In the UK we saw a vast solar farm, and across the Channel were patches of hundreds of windmills.

We saw electric cars charging on the street in Paris, and in driveways in Seattle.

There were city bike hire schemes in many places: Seattle, Rome (I think), Vienna, Paris and Oxford, at least. These are very cheap bike-hire schemes that encourage people to get around under their own steam. You grab one for an hour or however long you want, and it might cost $1.

We found these bikes parked all over the place in Seattle - for
example on the grass strip in front of a random house.
We hired and rode one, too. Unfortunately there
were three of us and only one bike per app allowed.
Did I mention the Seattle gardens? Oh, oh, oh. I took a million photos, and here are just a few. I love the way they nurture their old houses and don't knock them down for something shiny. A post is coming on them soon.

By the way, in Europe I only visited Italy, Austria, France and the United Kingdom. I would have loved to see what's happening in Germany! Good things, I suspect.

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