Thursday, February 16, 2012

Attempts at Zero Waste in Cape Town

I'll start with questions for those living in Cape Town (or other parts of South Africa), before talking about our experience of reducing waste here in Cape Town:

  • Does anyone get milk in returnable glass bottles? Could you help me do the same?
  • Does anyone go to the butcher with their own containers- any suggestions on this?
  • Mushrooms and cheese also seem to be always packaged in plastic. Are there places where this is not the case?

My husband, one-year-old son and I recently moved from Boston, USA to Cape Town, South Africa. I'm originally from South Africa, but we'd been living in Boston for more than a decade. We'd got into a rhythm of gradually reducing our footprint (and perhaps plateaued) in Boston, but Cape Town is totally new to us.

We arrived with very little and have been gradually making decisions about everything from second-hand furniture, paint, shelving, beds, and food.

Zero Waste vs. Zero Landfill Trash
If I interpret "zero waste" as not wasting anything, I'd say South Africans are doing pretty well. Broken electronics find a new life, again and again, as they move down the economic food chain. This is similarly true for bottles, tins/cans and other trash. They are reused before they are recycled. The exception to this seems to be plastic bottles that line the streets of our neighborhood.

With good weather and a strong agricultural infrastructure, food uses up much fewer miles to get to our plate- even without any effort on our part. Electricity is expensive and pre-paid, so we watch your meter go down in real-time as I cook. However, both water and cooking are primarily fueled by electricity, rather than gas. Electricity is really inefficient at these two tasks.

But "zero landfill trash" is a different story. Recycling depends on the individual- there's no free neighborhood recycle pickup. Produce tends to be packaged (in plastic bags and polystyrene), even more than in Boston, and it's difficult to get milk in reusable jars. With recycling as less of a viable option, we're less likely to use it as a fallback option. Here are some things we've been trying:
  • Starting worm bins. We started with about 1000 worms, and they are multiplying fast. We have the advantage that they can stay outdoors all year round, but the disadvantage that we're often under siege by ants. The worms are able to consume the fairly large amount of organic and paper waste we produce every day, and we will soon be able to start fertilize our container garden with rich worm castings.
  • Using soda bottles (not bought by us) as self-watering containers. This helps use bottles on the street usefully.
  • Using deposit (returnable) bottles when we really feel like soda. I'm keeping the caps, and have an idea for how to use them.
  • When we have to buy things in packaging, we're favoring glass, and using these glass containers for freezing leftovers, and for other storage.
  • We haven't bought a can/tin opener, which means that there's virtually no metal waste in the house.
  • I buy flour, pasta, sugar and rice at the local large-volume shop, Makro, and keep them in our deep freeze, so that they can't be attacked by all the ants. I buy produce at the local Fruit and Veg City, which doesn't require you to bag and pre-weigh produce (as all other stores do), meaning no plastic bags, and no labels.
  • Rather than buying a large fridge-freezer, we bought a small bar fridge and a chest freezer. The chest freezer is relatively full, so seems to require very little energy to keep cold. The bar fridge is also quite full, and it's much less likely that we'll waste food: we see what's there as soon as we open the fridge. We also bought second hand household appliances wherever possible.
  • I keep sourdough starter for bread, so there's no need to buy the tiny pre-packaged yeast packets, and the sourdough is essentially waste-free. I cut the large loaf into 4 pieces and freeze three, so that it's fresh when we eat it.
  • We have a small house, and a solar geyser.

In a society where most people's footprints have nowhere to go but up, and a street that's totally concrete, I want our little house to be overflowing with green life. I dream of our home being a haven and a place that uses resources in creative ways. Thanks for being part of this dream!


emily said...

I've noticed in my raw milk research that there are people around jo-burg who do raw. They may be a resource for people closer to obs... Worth a try? You can start at the Weston A Price Foundation website..

emily said...

That idea because they probably do low/no waste packaging.

Concrete Gardener said...

Yes- though I found it funny when I was researching the raw milk market here: it seemed like it's underground in a very different context from the U.S.: It's cheap and available in townships from people who may keep just one or two cows, and fill up old soda bottles etc. for about 1/4 of the cost of supermarket milk. But I haven't yet found any delivery/sale of milk in bottles.

The supermarket milk comes in non-recyclable sachets, or recyclable (with a lot of effort) #5 plastic bottles. I'm going with the non-recyclable sachets for now, because they seem like less overall milk and I'm not sure about recycling yet.

Which made me think of your comment about using cars when we need it. When I think of having a car, I find my whole lifestyle shifting a bit. For example, trying to regularly visit a farm where we can get milk. I'm not sure I'd take the train into town much. It may be that the places I go will be different. I hope not, since I just bought a year's aquarium pass and plan to go there until Noah is totally sick of being asked to name fish.