How St Albans is becoming more sustainable
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 March 2020
As UK legislation comes in this month banning plastic straws and cotton buds, St Albans mum Caroline Thain looks at what’s happening in the city to combat plastic and greenhouse pollution .
A while ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed on a sunny day, after we had enjoyed a barbecue. Then it hit me. Right in the face. A post offering a baguette to anyone who could collect it because it was left over from a barbecue and they didn’t want it to go to waste. Really? How are you going to fetch it – in your massive 4x4?
Around the time there was also a half-used tube of children’s toothpaste up for grabs for one lucky receiver. They too must collect it. Her little one didn’t like the flavour but yours might. And what a shame to bin it because she simply cannot abide waste.
On a Hertfordshire parent page I spotted a wooden John Lewis jigsaw ‘with a few pieces missing but plenty of life left’ – and the secondhand price was about the same as the item still sells for new. It’s puzzling.
These are at the quirkier end of the spectrum of ‘preloved’ delights available. I found them amusing and I try to be ecologically aware, but I do think my old Muppet friend Kermit The Frog had a point – it’s not easy being green.
I have a load of cloth nappies that I am about to pass on to my lovely friend and I don’t feel quite right about handing them over. Somehow her beautiful new baby is too clean and perfect to wear my toddler’s old nappies. But what would I do with them otherwise?
Since baguette-gate, a wave of kindness has spread through the nation. It’s extremely fashionable to be kind. Caring is key. Compassion is everything. To other humans, to animals, to the environment…
Alongside BBC documentaries about sealife entangled in food packaging, images of tiny turtles speared with cotton buds flood social media. Activists say the earth is heating up at such a pace, we will surely all be dead by Friday. Or so it seems.
Meanwhile I am enjoying a hot coffee from my reusable bamboo cup in a fast-food outlet, as my three-year-old asks me for yet another paper straw. They recently changed to paper to cut plastic pollution. I wonder how ecologically sound this really is – especially when it takes four straws to get through a milkshake, such is the high speed at which they ‘ecologically break down’. By the time I have to go and ask the guy behind the counter for a third paper straw, I am close to having my own ecological breakdown. I should have remembered to take my eight stainless steel straws that live in the cutlery drawer. They even have their own little sustainably-sourced pouch too but I have four children and life got in the way, so in the drawer they remain.
I took them out the first time and, in a theatrically smug higher-level parenting gesture, handed them one by one to my family as other parents stared in awe, marvelling at my eco-warrior ways. It was as if the chatter of burger bar chaos paused and I heard a dramatic documentary musical climax and David Attenborough enthusiastically cheering me on.
And I will have to dig out those reusable straws because from this month, plastic straws will be closer to extinction. New legislation means UK shops and restaurants face a ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds. The law was brought in after it was backed by 80 per cent of respondents to a government survey. In the UK we use and (usually badly) dispose of an estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws and 1.8 billion cotton buds each year.
In some instances plastic straws can still be offered as disability rights groups argued certain conditions mean plastic straws are essential for medical reasons.
So it appears that common sense, behavioural changes and being savvy are the most sensible ways to heal the world – buying less, using less, reusing more, switching off, driving less, wasting less and recycling. Celina Mendoza, founder of The Refill Pantry in St Albans, agrees. Her shop is dedicated to cutting out one-use packaging, selling a large variety of loose products to be taken home in your own reusable containers. And if you don’t have any, they sell them. The aim is to reduce waste and offer plastic-free ethical shopping locally as part of a solution to global environmental issues.
‘It’s wonderful seeing new people come every day but we have a greater number of regular customers coming for their weekly shop. We are pleased with how well the word is spreading and business is certainly thriving,’ Celina says.
She adds that customers enjoy the experience of refilling jars and bags from dispensers. ‘It’s fun for adults and children, who are sometimes entrusted to do the job. We are so grateful to our customers for supporting our independent shop at a time when retail is a tough place to be.’
She says the interaction with customers – something missing from most of our shopping experiences – is definitely a high. ‘It feels like life slows down a little for them and we have chance to talk, which doesn’t happen much in our fast-paced society.’
Produce, which is weighed and purchased according to individual requirements, includes Hertfordshire-grown quinoa, chai seeds, red haricot beans and olive-green lentils, rapeseed oil from Sawbridgeworth and St Albans-made granola. Celina also sells everyday groceries such as rice, nuts, pasta, dried fruit, chocolate and cleaning and beauty products, including jars of toothpaste. And reusable straws. Phew.
Now she plans to expand, opening in other locations, after realising her dream of establishing the St Albans shop in 2018.
There is also a group of more extreme environmental activists in the city, who undertake training in non-violent direct action to learn how to make the most impacting fuss in the most peaceful (and usually legal) way. They call themselves rebels.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) made headlines locally when they protested in St Albans centre, blocking the road outside the clock tower and erecting their distinctive flag with its black hourglass symbol on the historic building.
They have also held a public funeral procession for extinct animals, demonstrated against airport expansion and notoriously glued themselves to roads.
A member of the St Albans branch of the environmental campaign group defended its actions which the organisation believes are critical in saving the earth. Members are ‘mostly typical St Albans residents who have never done anything similar.’ And they are indisputably a genuinely passionate bunch who yearn for real change before it’s too late. But is it too extreme? The 44-year-old, who wanted to remain anonymous, says ‘XR’s tactics are a proportional response to the predicament we find ourselves in. It’s a lot harder to ignore an issue when someone glues themselves to a road you’re trying to drive down.
‘The scientific evidence is clear that there needs to be a concerted global effort to make some radical changes right now, but there is no evidence that the government or industry will change without something equally radical.
‘Our tactics are extreme because they have to be. We are now at a point where if we continue with business as usual, the future for life on this planet is grim. It’s pretty grim now and it’s only going to get worse. What good is anything we do if our air is polluted or our house is flooded? Our disruptive non-violent protests are designed to pause the system we are all engaged in, so we can catch a breath and see things as they are.’
And locally the group is having an impact. After they and other eco lobbying groups applied pressure, St Albans City and District Council voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency last summer. As part of that, the activists called for the council to pledge to do its best to make the district carbon-free by 2030.
Alongside an XR campaign outside the building before the meeting, officials were also persuaded by a 1,700-signature petition organised by Sustainable St Albans and St Albans Friends of the Earth.
Simon Grover, a Green Party councillor on the council, says it’s fantastic that the authority agreed to declare a climate emergency.
‘Many of the changes we need to see will make life better – quieter streets, cleaner air and better public transport. But there will be some challenges like eating less meat and flying less.’
A fifth Sustainability Festival in St Albans, Harpenden and surrounding villages takes place from May 23 to June 7. To see news and information about that and the groups mentioned in the piece, visit their Facebook pages or got to sustfest.org