Rubbish Q&A Day

Tracey ready to answer questions
Tracey is standing by her computer and is ready to answer your questions!

A quick note from Thomas:

Hi everybody and welcome to the first Book of Rubbish Ideas Q&A day. Anybody out there who wants to leave Tracey a rubbish and sustainable living related questions may do so by leaving a comment under this post and Tracey will then get busy finding an answer for you. So keep this post up, pop back and refresh often to have a look at the questions and answers as they come rolling in throughout the day.

But first, many of you submitted questions last week so Tracey has got a head start and has answered many of them already. Thanks to everybody who submitted questions and here they are with Tracey’s responses:

Question from Lara Burgoine

Why don’t local councils collect plastic and cardboard meaning we still have to take the car to the recycling centre to get it processed? I find I have more of this than glass and newspaper- I can’t be the only one.

A great question Lara and no, you’re definitely not the only one!

The issue with cardboard and plastic particularly continues to be a bone of contention all over the country. The problem lies in the way your local authority/council chooses to process it’s recycled waste and there is no unified system in this country for dealing with it.

This is borne out of a directive from DEFRA and I agree with the stance to a certain extent.

Each village, town, hamlet and city are so different and it wouldn’t do for a white paper to dictate that ‘Government knows best’ and that all districts have to handle things in the same way. For some of the smaller areas, it simply may not be financially viable or physically achievable.

However, the different authorities are supposed to support their neighbouring districts and as a girl that sits on a triangle of 3 counties, all of which have different recycling protocols, I completely understand and share your frustrations.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the recyclate has to be sold on/got rid of and if there’s no market for it, they are stumped. This will only be completely remedied by huge investment in our flailing manufacturing industry in this country and with injections of support given to companies who can turn the recyclate into reworked products. Sadly, it’s in a fairly embryonic state here at the moment, but I have no doubt in the coming decade we’ll see warp-drive improvements made to it, as oil stocks continue to deplete and the world wakes up to the fact that production of X, Y and Z using virgin components is no longer an option.

Until such time as multi-component reprocessing is far more commonplace, we’ll have to exercise our patience and if we want to lessen the impact and see an immediate difference in our lives, we’ll just have to shop differently.

But in the meantime, you’d do well to organise a recycled rubbish rota-system with a few neighbours. I’ve detailed exactly how to implement this in one of my ‘letters for change’ in the book. You can copy that letter from here.

Essentially, 4 neighbours take turns in being the person that goes to the civic amenity site and they take everyone’s plastic/cardboard/tetrapak or whatever it is the weekly/fortnightly guys don’t take away. That way, you’re removing 3 cars from the road and the queue to the dump and you only have to make the journey once a month, or even less of course, if you get more neighbours involved.

Question from Gemma Driver

1. I’ve been thinking about a commercial venture selling dairy products in little pots. So far the most suitable material for the pots is polystyrene. Even if I used card, which wouldn’t be such a good insulator, it would have to be covered in plastic. Any ideas on a more ecologically friendly, but still waterproof and insulating material? It has to be commercially viable, too, of course!

2. I get the impression that your kids thoroughly enjoy their way of life, and the creativity that you add to it. Do you think they will ever rebel against the sustainable living ethos, or is it too much a part of their way of thinking now? Do they champion sustainability themselves?

Hmm. A chewy one! Well I’m not sure what it is you’re selling. Does it need to be kept hot or warm then? If not, would some sort of paper and string or a sticker be a possibility? Both of which can be easily composted.

I’m sure you’ll find a solution on either Ecomundi’s website, see ‘Catering’ under the ‘Office’ section. If you need cutlery, they have 100% biodegradable choices there too which might come in handy if they are eating on the streets at a market stall. W. F. Denny also specialise in biodegradable containers for the catering industry and are well worth a visit.

Of course, it does all boil down to where the customer disposes of the container after they’ve used it and if you did use glass containers for drinks or yoghurts etc, you could offer discounts on returns, which would also encourage them to come back to you. There would of course be a higher cost involved in supplying them, but glass is an eternally reusable product and that should fair in the business plan of any eco-conscious retailer.

Plastic containers per se are going to become more of an issue and even when you look at the new developments in products like starch based biodegradable ones, you have to weigh up the cost (money and environmental) of something that takes considerably more energy to produce for a one-off use, as opposed to something that can be broken down and reworked time and time again.

Moving onto your second question, our kids are growing up (hopefully) in a house that celebrates sustainable living and works hard to find solutions for our normal family but that favour the environment too. They are little green champions and love getting involved in the eco-schools awards that I got their primary school into.

As I wrote in the dedication for my book, ‘children are the leaders of the future’ and we must do all we can to prepare them for adulthood, long before they step into it! If we normalise green behaviour, they’ll do all the things I’m working hard to promote, as a matter of course. This might free up their time to really put a creative slant on solutions for sustainable living!

Question from Jeremy

Why should only men pee in the composter? Is it cos women fall off when trying to balance on top of it?

I just knew there’d be one!

The thing is, male urine contains a higher content of nitrates, which work as very good accelerators helping to break down the organic contents of your compost heap. Female tiddle is still ok, but you fellas seem to have the upper hand.

I advise you decanting into a bottle and sprinkling it into your heap once a week and don’t forget to give the pile a good aerating poke with a big stick every now and again, to help it all along.

Question from Emily

Pencil sharpenings. Can they be composted?

They certainly can.

Composting is a wonderful example of natural recycling, as all the organic materials added to it naturally biodegrade with the addition of heat and moisture.

Sharpenings would predominantly contain wood, which is wonderfully compostable, but if you were concerned about returning any minimal amounts of lead into the ground, you could always throw the shavings onto your fire.

Here’s a basic list of things you can put into your heap taken from the composting section of the Recycling Expert:

Grass cuttings, woody material (prunings, pencil sharpenings), coffee grounds, tea leaves or bags, vacuum bag contents, egg shells, newspapers (shredded), cardboard (ideally wet), leaves, sawdust, pine cones, dead flowers, old plants, hay & straw, lint from the clothes dryer, and pet and human hair are all ideal for the compost pile. Urea and seaweed are excellent activators to add to the pile at any time.

The list certainly doesn’t end there.

Be creative with your thinking and add things like cotton tee shirts that have lost the will to live; even denim would break down over time. Chop them into smallish pieces and add them to the pile.

Question from Apple

Fallen leaves. How do I compost them? In the composter, separately, or not at all?

It’s a question of how many you’re talking about really. Leaves make a great addition to the compost heap in reasonable amounts. They do take a while to break down, so if possible, shread them first.

You must also understand there needs to be a good balance of wet and dry elements in your heap. If you are going to add masses of soggy, wet leaves be sure to give them a good stir around and do compensate with dry materials like paper or cardboard to help absorb their moisture.

Too wet or too dry a heap, is not a good heap!

Another alternative, particularly if you are growing fruits, vegetables or plants in your garden, is for you to use them as a mulch. A mulch is basically a barrier between the soil and the sky and can act as a great weed preventor and fertiliser. Once again, it’s best you shread them first and then put them in a pile on their own, or into a mulch collector (basically a big box, you could easily make your own) and unlike compost, you could use it immediately after you’ve made it and it would break down over time returning goodness to the soil.

Here’s an article (with pictures) on using mulch sacks to collect your leaves in, but they look very similar to large onion sacks if you ask me and I’m sure your local greengrocer would be able to supply you with a few if you ask them nicely!

If you don’t want to do anything with the leaves in your garden, this would also be a great way to collect them and deposit them at your local civic amenity site. Many authorities have collections of green waste, but you generally have to pay per sack. See my answer to Lara for my top tip on getting a rota worked out in your neighbourhood. It’s also useful to find out if any of your immediate neighbours are making leaf mulch for their gardens. They might be delighted to rid you of yours and everyone will win.

If you’re setting a composting heap up for the first time, read the great advice on the Recycle Now website, and if you want to explore wormeries and Bokashi bins too, the guys at Original Organics should be able to point you in the right direction.

Question from Fran

What do you do with all the cellophane wrappers and crisp/sweet packets etc that aren’t accepted for recycling??

Sweet wrappers are a bit of a nuisance because they are so variable. I don’t know of any recycling organisation that takes cellophane, but you could recycle it yourself and use it as a packing stuffer when sending items in the post, although I’m not sure how well received 100 sweetie wrappers will be by your recipient who then has the job of recycling them on again!

The best advice I can give you on sweets is to find a local sweet shop that sells them in jars and buy wrapper-free versions served in paper bags! We have a lovely one tucked away just off the high street. They are well worth seeking out. Also, you’ll probably save money too if you buy larger packs of confectionery and dish out one or two at a time. Yes, it is tempting to eat the lot, but you have to be firm missus!

You could also use any funky coloured sweet wrappers for card crafting and gift-wrapping decorations and embellishments – please see my recent post on the subject.

As for crisps, they are a complete faff with no real solution available as yet. They are usually wrapped in a packet that contains a metal-coated plastic film, which looks like aluminium; to the best of my knowledge, these cannot currently be recycled. If you’re not sure, try the scrunch test. If you scrunch it up in your hand, and it springs back, it’s plastic. If it stays crumpled it’s aluminium, and can be recycled.

Here’s a alternative thought for you and once again this takes great will power, but consider buying really huge packs and dishing a few out into containers for the lunch boxes. This might help lessen your impact on landfill, but unless you stop eating them, it won’t eradicate it.

But how about this for innovative; wash them out thoroughly, dry them, turn them inside out and use them to store the freebie CD’s and DVD’s you get on magazines. All you need is a label on the front and you’re done!

They could also be used to wrap small presents like jewellery boxes etc.

If you put them through a shredder they would make more attractive strips to use as a packing material and again, you could always use cut them up and use them in card and gift-tag making sessions.

Question from Jenny

How can I recycle the dirt bag from my vacuum? Is it compostable?

You can certainly compost the contents of your bag and if your bag is made entirely from paper or card, then yes, you can shove that in too! I suggest you break it all up first, to allow for easy biodegradation. Be sure to recycle it first though if you can. Reusing all household items, including these bags, is good practice.

If you are in the market for buying a new vacuum, you might like to consider one of the bagless varieties and then you can just tip the contents straight in.

Of course, if you are trying to produce ‘truly’ organic compost, this will not do, as you will be adding minute fibres of manmade substances, like carpet strands etc, but if you’re not being too purist about things, it’ll be fine, don’t lose any sleep over it!

Question from Anne Ellis

I have bin bags full of old home recorded video tapes, pre-recorded ones I’ve recycled to charity shops but I can find no where to recycle the others apart from to the tip which I’m reluctant to do. Any ideas!

Once you’ve gone down the usual routes of donating films to the charity shops, it seems there are no alternatives for disposing of old VHS tapes.

CVA, a recycling company in Bristol can help with these though.

We recycle and supply all formats, including Digital Betacam, Betacam SP, Betacam SX, DVCam and DVCPro, HDCam, HDV and DVCPro 50, as well as the best known brands from Sony to Maxell.

Their little flash video is a little long winded, but well worth a watch.

Take a look at these guys too – there might even be some money in it for you.

Alternatively, I suggest they go into the Blue Peter corner for reuse! You could pull out the tape and use it to weave over garden stakes to keep the birds off of your plants. Or tie long strips of them to canes that blow about in the wind, frightening the birds.

Or how about using it to knit with or weave into strong patches of plastic fabric and making into bags! Once again, it could be good for stuffing out packaging with, but there’s probably only so much you can post in any one lifetime!

Question from Ally

Help! I live in student accommodation in central london, so can deal with the recycling stuff easy enough, but how oh how should i deal with food waste (as in, stuff that i would normally compost in an ideal world)? I feel evil chucking ends of leeks in the bin =( x

Recycling schemes in Universities throughout the country are proving to be incredibly successful, but they very often concentrate on the common glass, cans and paper/cardboard.

Food waste can be trickier to deal with because of the logistics of where it’s going to be taken on campus to process it.

I do know of a guy who only had a tiny flat and actually had a sealed composting bin in the living room! It worked apparently but I wouldn’t personally recommend this method!

You’d do better to be the frontrunner in a campaign to get a community composting scheme going. Here are a few tips from one in Durham and one in Devon.

Good luck!

Question from Katy

In terms of non-compostable food waste, I generally only have one or two meals a week that generate any (meat/fish skin, bones and fat). I also generate one medium-sized caddy of fruit and vegetable waste per week, that I compost. Given the price of a bokashi bin set (£65 for the recommended 2 bins plus bran), is it worth me investing? Do I have enough waste to make it practical and worthwhile?

If you’re determined to get going with Bokashi, I’d say just start with one and see how you get on.

Original Organics do one for £34.99 and if you do go to a double bin, it’s £54.99. But as you generate only a small amount of waste, it might be a better idea to combine your efforts with a neighbour, cutting the cost of the initial outlay and ‘working it all out’ together.

Bokashi is expensive, but it’s a brilliant way of being able to leave a zero footprint for food when used in conjunction with your wormery or composter.

Question from Peter

1. Do you think that there is enough being done in our major media to inform and/or inspire the public in matters of positive environmental practices in a more down to earth, practical sense? There is much out there to be sure, but I am not convinced that £200 reclaimed footstools or £2000 eco hols always sends out the best message to the majority. I’m being rhetorical and wishful of course, but do you think the planet might benefit from the thoughts and shared experiences from more who may only have the option of Tesco once a week but are still just trying their best? I’m guessing the ‘quality’ dailies and the BBC are a lost cause as they all live in the centre of the known universe already, but maybe a tab or two could be persuaded to venture outside the M25 a run a column or two, too?

2. Especially bearing in mind that it does tend to offer the individual greater personal, financial and emotional rewards than either, yet is higher in the ‘re’ hierarchy than the latter?

What a fantastic question and to tackle point one, NO, I don’t, not by a long chalk!

Whatever level of sustainable living you exercise, there’s always more you can do and the best way of getting people to take another step forward is by encouraging their good behaviour.

The collective media are truly missing a trick here, but perhaps this should be kicked into touch by the government in the first instance.

I am constantly drawn to the great successes of the Dig for Victory campaign and more recently I’m observing Jamie Oliver and his Ministry of Food resurrection. I believe progress is being made, but it’s all too slow and sure for my liking.

The government should also be a driving force for implementing sustainable living lessons in all schools, but this doesn’t seem to be forthcoming either. It’s not good enough at all.

I think at the end of the day, it’ll be great organisations being led by grassroots campaigners that are going to be our nations saving grace.

The likes of Freecycle, and more are connecting communities and spreading the great, green word and it’s down to ‘we on the streets Johnny’ to tell the world about them.

There’s no doubt about it, a few column inches in the broadsheets would get more souls onboard (if I can find 10 minutes, I might even give them a punt!)…

As for the last part of your question, I’m sorry, I can’t follow it! Sorry dear boy! Drop me a line with it in English and I’ll give it a stab!!! LOL…

Question from Bethan Jones

Hello Tracey! It’s not strictly a rubbish question but … I am a big fan of beautiful clothes and accessories but I am not a fan of the endless consumer drive to get us all to constantly buy buy buy. I would love to be able to make a few pieces myself and wondered if you had any tips for good websites or books to check out for knitting and crafts that might get me started. I’ve been on which is a fab site with lots of wonderful creations but what I’m really after is a bit of a ‘how-to’ for beginners to get me started.

Funny you should mention that, but I’ve only broken up my evening answering these questions by doing a bit of knitting!

I’ve recently got into that myself via Knitting Help and am really enjoying it, not just for the fact that I’m making something very individual to wear, but it’s also a very relaxing pastime too.

There are hundreds of beginners dressmaking courses and evening classes run up and down the country and this list should point you in the right direction. Do also take a look at the local school for small classes that might not be advertised on the Internet.

If you’re looking for something that’s more quickly accessible, there are two great books called Funk it Up and Glitz it Up, both by Petra Boase, which have over 100 simple personalising projects for you to sink your teeth into!

But another great way to keep your wardrobe fresh is by hosting clothes swap parties and again, I’ve written a ‘letter for change’ that you can copy out from here and organise a do for your chums.

Everyone wins; you clear out your cupboards, get some great new outfits and spend zero dosh!

There are 10 Q&As to get the ball rolling so add you question in the comments box below and Tracey will get back to you. Have a great Rubbish Q&A day everybody!

12:20pm update:

Question from Paul Sarjantson

In these difficult times, credit-crunch and all that, I was wondering, instead of chucking my tins in the recycle bin, for someone else to collect and get the money for, how much would I get, if I weighed in at a scrap-yard, say, 100 aluminium cans, or 100 tin cans? I guess the price of ferrous and non-ferrous metals have gone up recently too, so it might be quite a tidy amount! Have fun with the Q&A Day…

That’s a savvy Q and it’s provoked a bit of interesting research this morning, I can tell you.

You certainly can make money from recycling and currently, aluminium cans only hold the premium.

The Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro) is a not-for-profit company, which represents the leading aluminium packaging producers and reprocessors in the UK. Their role is to ensure that packaging waste recycling targets are met through working with local authorities and other partners and through public education. They are also the body responsible for working with Government on policy issues.

But to answer your point, they also have some great guidelines on how you can turn cans into cash. Take a look at their website for details and request a list of paying schemes in your area.

Bundle together your aluminium cans, weigh them and then ring around to see who’s offering the best price and be aware that some operate a minimum delivery quantity.

It’s important to check that all of your cans are aluminium and there are a few ways of doing this. On the side of all cans, you should be able to find either an ALU within a circle of arrows or a STL within a triangle of arrows. ALU is of course aluminium and STL is steel but also, steel is magnetic and aluminium isn’t so that’s a great way to check.

The price for aluminium has recently dipped, but a good ballpark figure as at the 10th November 2008 is around 45p per kilo.

If your individual efforts aren’t going to rake in the cash, you might like to set up a scheme that benefits your community or school. The Alupro website can walk you through the steps to setting something up so do pay them a visit.

With steel cans, I’m afraid it’s a whole new ball game.

SCRIB, the Steel Can Recycling Information Bureau informed me this morning that there usually ‘is’ a buoyant market for steel and about 4 months ago, the price was around £255 per tonne. However, with the public recognition and governmental confirmation of the fact that we ‘are having a credit crunch’ several things have taken place.

As we know, banks are not lending money to each other and construction companies are having trouble getting funding for building projects as there’s also a marked downturn in property buying. As they are one of our main players for using recycled steel for use in girders and other materials, demand for it has declined.

As has the car manufacturing industry. There are quite simply fewer sales of vehicles and this has also reflected in a drastic decline in demand for recycled steel.

The net result of which has led to a decision being made by SCRIB to offer the princely sum of £0.00 per tonne…..yes, zero money in a zero market.

Even China, Turkey and other countries who have in the past been happy shoppers of our recyclate are not buying it any more. This isn’t restricted to the steel industry; at present there are panics afoot in respect of plastic and other materials too, but this posting is focused on cans, so I’ll not divert.

SCRIB assure me that this is a ‘blip’ on the sustainable living landscape and that as things pick up, so will the markets, but I am feeling flutters of concern for the knock on effects of this halt in the trade of steel.

Our food manufacturing industry is reliant upon recycled steel, as are many others; sink makers and commercial kitchen outfitters being two that spring to mind. What will the knock on consequences be of this seizure in trading?

My only hope is that if there’s nobody buying these products and if the stockpiles of recyclate build up and overflow to the point where they refuse to stockpile any more, this will go down the line to the home recyclers and it may dampen their efforts.

I am hopeful people will see this for what it is, a blip and that normal business will soon be resumed.

12:50pm update

Question from India

2 questions – are there any zero waste ways to deal with cat litter for an elderly cat who can’t go outside. Secondly, how do I get rid of a chicken carcass? I live in the country so is it ok to chuck it in a field for the foxes to eat or is there some other way to get rid of it. I’m veggie, so won’t use it for myself – I buy it for the cat.

Cat litter has been pounced upon by the savvy eco-inventors!

You can now buy, AMÍ EcoSand Pet Litter – a new clumping, flushable cat litter entirely made from natural plant material. It is also suitable for use with small animals too.

An eco-sustainable, environmentally friendly cat litter that is completely natural, AMÍ EcoSand is non toxic for both humans and animals.

Preventing the formation of bacteria, AMÍ EcoSand eliminates unpleasant odours, and is absolutely hygienic.

100% biodegradable, AMÍ SAND can also be disposed of down a toilet or composted.

And also, Benevo Cat Litter is a vegetable-based cat litter made from non-GMO maize and vegetable derivatives.

This environmentally friendly litter clumps and scoops and can be flushed down the toilet or composted where it will naturally biodegrade. Suitable for Kittens as well as adult Cats.

Both products are available online from

Moving onto your second question, chicken carcasses can be broken down in a Bokashi bin and then put into your normal composting bin. See Original Organics for details. I probably wouldn’t advocate slinging them out for the fox, it might give them predatory instincts for that area and cause more problems than it solves.

1:15pm update

Question from Adam

Is it better to buy plastic bottles that are recyclable, or corn starch-based plastic bottles that can biodegrade?

One short question – one huge answer!

Once again, we have the great intentions that come with biodegradable plastic, which will break down over 12 or so weeks in a commercial composter, not a domestic one, but if the drinker deposits it into a normal plastic bottle bank, it will contaminate the other recyclable units. If sufficient bio-units were in there, it could run the risk of the batch being rejected at the reprocessing plant and it all being sent to landfill if they slipped through the sorting net.

Also, there’s the issue of the considerably higher carbon footprint that comes with this new manufacturing process for a one-off use product; many virgin eco-products suffer this problem though, even the Prius still gets a slating and that will only dissipate with the passage of time and considerable increases in sales.

In my opinion, as we still have inadequate infrastructure and communication protocols between our refuse collections/depositing banks and recycling centres in this country and as we are unable to easily distinguish between biodegradable and non-bio plastics, cornstarch bottles and similar products could potentially create more problems than they solve.

But the fact remains, developments into environmentally friendly solutions for products that may end up in landfill are positive. It’s just that it relies on we humans to sort them correctly when we’ve finished with them and that’s where the volatile monster creeps in.

Here’s a comment on the Belu cornstarch bottles made by the chairman of the Association for Organics Recycling, which clarifies my point.

The corn-starch bottles are made from a type of plastic called polylactic acid (PLA). The bottles were launched in May this year, with Belu informing users that the bottles could be commercially composted back to soil in 12 weeks.

Trelawney Dampney, chairman of the Composting Association and managing director of a composting business in Dorset, said companies like his would not risk leaving any bottle in their compost.

He said: “If we get a batch of garden waste in with bottles included they will be shifted out, we will not sort through to pick out biodegradable ones – we couldn’t afford that. The only way it would work is if all households in the UK had a compost bin and on the bottle it is very very clearly marked as biodegradable.”

But this was not the view from the plastics recycling sector. Paul Davidson, plastics technical manager at the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), explained: “You don’t need too much PLA to mess PET up, especially if you want to recycle it back into a bottle. It will only take a few percent of PLA to make PET non-viable and that is just another concern for plastic re-processors to deal with.”

Recycled plastic bottles can be made into many different things and one of the best uses for plastic PET bottles is for reworking into polyester fleeces.

Plastic to polyester fleeces have diverted millions of bottles from landfill, with one fleece being made from around 11 bottles. High street stores like M&S have even launched their own line in them, so something is ticking the consumer box there.

If more retailers and designers picked up the baton, this could mark a significant point in reuse of these synthetic products and the simple fact remains, there’s a greatly reduced use of crude oil in the re-manufacture of bottles into garments, than in producing new materials.