I love English people. I love their sense of humour. I love their passion for eccentricity and silliness. I love the parties they throw, the music they make, the pubs they crawl, the television they air.

But sometimes English people are incredibly dense. No, dense is too nice a word. Sometimes they’re incredibly stupid. Their refusal to do things the way people do in other countries sometimes borders on the self-obsessed stubbornness of America.

Why do the subways in London shut at 11:30? Why can subways in New York City stay open until 4, but Londoners can’t keep theirs open past midnight? This makes no sense.

Why do people still eat Bird’s custard – a powdered mix that you add to milk?

This stuff is disgusting, and only became popular during WW2 when people had to ration everything. It’s 2007 people, you can buy gorgeous, delicious, real custard for cheap. Come on. Even worse – why do British people eat marmite? This is possibly the most disgusting substance known to man – nobody else (except Australians) eats this filth claiming it’s a good source of vitamin B.

Why is sushi so expensive here? It’s an ISLAND people, Britain is surrounded by the ocean – it shouldn’t cost 20 pounds (about $40) for a decent meal of sushi. I could get set meals in Vancouver for less than $7.

Why are they considering expanding into the greenbelt, the last vestiges of countryside they have left, instead of just creating taller buildings?

When it comes to the environment, the Brits have done some pretty stupid things lately. But as always, the stupidity always is paralleled by some incredible brilliance. In a series of blog entries, of which this is the first, I’ll be pointing out some examples of British environmental thick-headedness – but like all good judges I will be fair. For in this land of extremes – Bird’s custard and regular custard, The Spice Girls and Aphex Twin, Benny Hill and Stephen Fry – there is always somebody somewhere who has the right idea.

This is certainly the case when it comes to garbage (“rubbish,” in UK parlance). Let me give you just a few examples of how stupid, and how brilliant, they can be with it comes to what they throw away.

There has been an absolute furor this year over rubbish collection. The Brits have had their garbage picked up weekly since 1875, and it’s a tradition they apparently are very proud of. But landfills in this tiny country are overflowing, and many ridings across the island have switched to picking up rubbish only once every two weeks. The Independent has a great piece about the controversy here.

So outraged were many Britons at the prospect of having garbage picked up only once every two weeks, that the newspaper The Daily Mail launched a campaign in protest, calling weekly garbage collection “a basic human right.”

Now, you wouldn’t think this would be such a painful transition for them. But the Brits are ridiculously old fashioned with it comes to waste. They do have recycling in many places now, but it really doesn’t seem like most people actually use the service (or even know about it). And if you’re on the street and you’ve got plastic or paper or metal waste, there isn’t ever anywhere to put it aside from generic garbage bins. And there are only a few areas that recycle organic waste (or so I’ve heard, I’m having trouble finding any trace of them on the net).

The main issue Brits have with twice a month collection is that garbage piling up tends to stink, and attracts foxes and rats. No doubt. So why don’t you bring in rigorous recycling programs – with organic waste recyling to get rid of the pest-attracting food – in concert with twice-a-month garbage collection? This isn’t rocket science people.

I don’t want to get all “we do it better where I come from” – but I gotta. They do do it better in Toronto. They rigorously collect all paper, plastic and metal recycling, and organic waste – so there isn’t really a need to pick up garbage more than once every two weeks, because so much of it gets diverted to recycling. Would it be so difficult to adopt this system?

There are however a couple of silver linings to the British lunacy when it comes to waste. One is The Independent’s campaign to reduce supermarket waste – which is long overdue, and absolutely fantastic to finally see. Supermarkets here, for some bizarre reason, wrap everything in scads of plastic. Check out this container of lettuce from my fridge:

Is it really necessary to put the lettuce in a plastic tray and plastic wrapping? What’s wrong with good old-fashioned loose produce? Apparently the Brits agree with me – polls show that they think supermarkets use too much packaging, so hopefully in the near future we’ll be seeing less of it here.

Although, in another bit of English lunacy, newspapers reported this week that a British man has invented a “cardboard milk bottle” as an eco-friendly, recyclable alternative to the plastic milk jugs that litter this country.

Uh… you mean a milk carton? The kind they’ve been using for decades in North America? The kind that you can easily toss in the recycling (at least in Toronto)?


Hello? Had nobody ever thought to bring in milk cartons in this country? Apparently not – the inventor says it took him 18 months to come up with his design, which came to him in a vision in (you guessed it) the pub. Well, it certainly strikes me as pretty dim-witted that nobody thought to bring in the carton in this country sooner – but at least they’ve got the right idea.

But the best – and simplest – idea I have to report on today comes from Modbury, a little town in Devon, which has become the first town in Europe to ban plastic bags. Actually, the idea came from wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking, who was inspired to campaign for a ban after she witnessed the death of albatross, sea turtles and even a rare monk seal, choking on plastic bags.

Check out her fantastic website on plastic debris.

More than a trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide – each one is used on average for 12 minutes before being thrown away. It is estimated that at least 100,000 marine creatures – from turtles to whales to birds – are killed by plastic bags every year.

Mobury is small – only 43 shopkeepers in total that needed to be convinced – but that makes it ideal for the revolutionary ban on plastic bags: it would have been so much harder to accomplish in a big city. But now that they have done it, hopefully other towns will follow suit. Surely of all the things we use plastic for, we can live without plastic grocery bags.

As Hosking writes in this editorial in The Guardian, “The town has a great community but we are nothing special – neither am I. All we did was get out there and make it happen.”

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