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Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Monday, 9 July 2007 11:24 UK

My war on waste

Betsy Reid and compost bins
Betsy Reid composts everything from food scraps to leather

By Alison Trowsdale
BBC News

Today it's reduce, reuse, recycle. For earlier generations, make do and mend. Done assiduously, the result is next to no rubbish. With zero waste the goal for many councils, a life-long adherent shares her tips in the first of our week-long look at recycling.

It's been five weeks since the bin men last called at Betsy Reid's house in Waldingfield, Suffolk. It's not because her local council is trialling a radical reduction in service in a drive to cut waste - there's rarely any rubbish to collect.

Today a very modest black bag sits at the end of the drive, much to the 63-year-old's shame. Clearing an elderly relative's house of a lifetime's clutter has left her with more rubbish than usual.

Waste is an anathema to this retired school teacher. What she can't reuse or recycle is rotted down into fertile compost for her flourishing garden.


toothpaste tube

Reduce: even cutting the top off an old toothpaste tube makes the contents spread further and saves money and waste.

kettle being used as a plant pot

Re-use where possible. Anything you can't find a new use for, go to and offer to others for free.

Items such as some crisp packets need specialist treatment

Recycle: Most local authorities recycle glass, paper etc, but items like Tetra Paks, need specialist treatment.

contents of a bin

Compost: Vegetable peelings compost better and smell less if your kitchen waste bin is lined with newspaper.

worms in compost

Remember: Cooked food needs extra processing. Worms or bokashi can break it down and stop the rats.

1 of 5
It's an approach once common in the austere days of rationing after World War II, and is once again gaining in popularity.

The Green Party is, unsurprisingly, a keen advocate of zero waste but it's an approach starting to gain ground among local authorities, as the UK seeks ways to dramatically reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.

Numerous local councils have experimented with "zero waste weeks". Among them was Bath and North East Somerset Council, which last December invited residents to see if they could produce no "black bag" rubbish for seven days - many volunteers managed to reduce their waste by up to 75%.

Other local authorities are threatening to fine householders whose bins are too full. Since early January, Charnwood Borough Council in Leicestershire has introduced fines of 80 if residents leave bags of rubbish by their bin, as part of its "Zero Waste Strategy".

Consumer society

And zero waste is a key part of the environmental plan for the London 2012 Olympics, during which contractors will be required to avoid sending waste to landfill sites.

Born on a farm in South Africa in 1944, Mrs Reid grew up in a household where little went to waste and developed an early understanding of the damage humans could do to the environment through bad farming practices.

This understanding has turned into a passion for the natural world and an eco-friendly way of life.

Black bin bag...five weeks waste
It's taken the Reids five weeks to accumulate this rubbish

"When I see a plastic mushroom container I nearly weep," says Mrs Reid. "What could I use it for? I could use it for lots of things - like plant trays - but I have got enough. Plastic does break down but it doesn't turn back into anything useful for hundreds, possibly thousands of years."

In the house she shares with husband Colin, nothing is thrown away that could be used again.

Waxed inner liners from cereal packets are used to wrap sandwiches. An outgrown jumper, which subsequently became a dog bed, has recently seen a new lease of life as elbow patches on another worn jersey. And she always cuts the tops off toothpaste tubes to get out every last squeeze.

She admits such steps may seem ridiculous, but over the years these will save money and resources.

Helping schools

"The best way of reducing your rubbish and impact on the environment is simply don't consume, but that runs counter to the whole way our society is organised," she says.

Even her husband, a more recent convert to the eco-life, sneaks off to the supermarket from time to time, returning with items such as the aforementioned packaged mushrooms.

Freecycle page on internet
Freecycle users offer goods for which they no longer have a use
There are some products even she can't avoid, such as the now ubiquitous Tetra Pak. She sends these, at her own expense, to a firm in Scotland for recycling.

Rather than add to overflowing landfill sites, the couple have given away coat hangers, shelving and an old cooker on Freecycle, a website which offers unwanted items for free.

When looking for a kitchen table - and reluctant to splash out on a new one with a puppy in the house - they found a "ready-chewed" table on Freecycle that was otherwise heading for the dump.

Grow your own

Ms Reid's burgeoning vegetable plot bears testament not only to her green fingers, but also her expertise as a composter. Nestling under an old duvet in a tucked-away corner of the garden is one of a number of compost heaps dotted around. A peek under the cover reveals grass clippings, vegetable peelings and old newspaper.

Preparing a newspaper liner for kitchen scraps
Line a kitchen waste bin with newspaper - if you put just the green waste into the bin it goes slimy and gooey and attracts huge numbers of fruit flies
Betsy Reid
A quick stir in another compost bin reveals huge numbers of worms - and a half-rotten leather camera case. Ms Reid has tried composting most things; she shuns synthetic fabrics for clothes and furnishings, because they don't break down.

"I even take in other people's municipal brown bins because I don't see the need to send anything to be specially composted."

In her last job at an independent boarding school where Colin was head teacher, she set up a giant wormery to reduce the food waste produced by 550 hungry pupils into fertile soil. She's now repeating the project at the village primary school, to teach the young about the cycle of life and hopefully cultivate a love of vegetables at the same time.

And she is continually on the look out for new ways to reduce waste. Keen to compost meat and fish scraps (which can attract vermin), on a recent trip to Amsterdam she came across bokashi, a bran-based product containing micro-organisms which break these down sufficiently to go in a compost bin.

Few things defeat Mrs Reid, apart from plastic bags. But the few she can't avoid are always reused. With more stores introducing biodegradable carrier bags, these too may soon be destined for her compost bins.

Below is a selection of your comments.

What a great example of what we should all be doing, but, i feel something which will put off most is the fact that we pay alot for refuse disposal to the council, so would we get a reduction on those rates if we all followed suit? Probably not.

Good for you Mrs Reid. It's a big shame there aren't another 60 million people like you in Britain. If only modern living wasn't so easy and lazy and totally unsustainable.
Andrew Piggott, Bognor Regis

Great stuff! I admire their efforts and their example. But I'm sad to admit that I'm extremely skeptical that everyone has time for this. If you're working 60-80 hours a week, or have a family or elderly parents to take care of, time is precious and I cannot imagine taking the time to do some of these things. Maybe if it is simply cutting into your television watching (or news reading - oops!) but I'm desperate for time with loved ones or sleep!
Juan, New York

It is all very well trying to go for a zero-waste policy, and no doubt it will do the environment a lot of good. It is however a completely unworkable practice for people living in flats. And since these are becoming more and more prevalent, the zero-waste policy is doomed to failure.
Martin Steinfort, Woking, UK

I too produce hardly any rubbish as I recycle and I take anything which I have no further use for to charity shops or donate to a recycled furniture charity locally. I also ensure I don't buy too much in the first place. I stand behind people in supermarket queues who spend as if it's going out of fashion and you just know a lot of it will be thrown away. I think wasting the earth's resources is nothing short of wicked and also very short sighted.
Janet Child, Chippenham

Recycling is great and I'm all for reduction in waste products. It'd help a lot of manufactures could alter their packaging to be a bit more environmentally friendly. My only concern is recycling fascism - zero tolerance of waste. Not all of us want to live bare basic life styles!
Paul, UK

Peple like this lady, are whom our councils should be talking to, to get ideas that are workable. Spend a bit of council tax money to teach this lady's ways, and watch the rubbish reduce. That is the way forward, not by heavy handed authoritarian behaviour which just gets peoples back up. Two or three trained officers going round to explain (helpfully) how we can change can do more good than fines and draconian measures.
A Connor, Blackpool. Lanc's

What a wonderful article - there should be more like it published reguarly around the world! Ms Reid should be commended for her diligence and persistence, because recycling is a tough, time-consuming commitment. She makes the rest of us look like slovenly slugs re: our environment (which, of course, we ARE!).
Maura Zimmerman, Chicago IL USA

I am horrified at the amount of householders who do not recycle a single thing. The Surrey Heath Borough Council seems happy to collect mountains of waste and not offer any real recycling solutions. Not everyone has the inclination to store and sort and drop off recycling at the various centres. One would hope a council might assist. The UK is lagging way behind countries like Germany where recycling has been a way of life for the past 20 years. Here, in the UK, it has barely begun! Shame on us!
Surrey Recycler, Bagshot, Surrey

It's all very nice encouraging people to make compost from her little village house, but us city dwellers rarely have gardens to make use of it! I'm sure the slow pace of life there also gives her the chance to wash out and make things out of old containers, but most of us have more pressing demands on our time.
Anna, London

Brilliant! Even if we are not all as missionary about this as Mrs Reid, each of us can probably take some ideas away from this.
Bruno, Haifa, Israel

What a fantastic article. It will sound very anoraky to most people but it does show how much more people can do to reduce or eliminate household waste. Because of today's disposable society there are too many things going into the bin long before they are actually used up, because of various silly reasons. Supermarkets and other retailers should do more to reduce excess packaging and councils should encourage home owners to recycle/compost more. I am an avid Freecycler, giving and taking things a few times a month, and I encourage friends to do the same. This sort of common sense 'why throw it out if someone else can use it' approach is key to getting the ball rolling and encouraging people to reuse, one part of the reduce/reuse/recycle triangle.
Frank McKinney, Derby

Bravo for Mrs. Reid. If only there were more like her. We have tried to recycle everything possible and have a compost heap, the output from which goes to our allotment. 95% of the recycled material we discard is packaging, much of it food packaging and most of which is entirely unnecessary. I have long thought that the only solution is to charge manufacturers for the clean-up costs of the packaging they use - in other words a tax on packaging.
Victor A Hill, Greenhithe, Kent

What a wonderful lady and a role model to all. As a family of 3, we used to recycle/compost a lot when we lived in Aylesbury, much to the surprise of friends. But for 4 years, we have been in KL as a family of 4 and it's nowhere near so easy. Supermarket and stall staff are bemused when I don't want their plastic bags. Composting is one things I truly miss and I shudder when I look at my scraps waste. But once in a new home, it will be a priority to get organised. Her story should be highlighted by the media to show people how it can be done. There is still a ridiculous stigma about 2ndhand and using the last drop of something.I know lives are busier nowadays, but we can still learn a lot from the older generations.
Ellen Suppiah, KL, Malaysia

I think most of the ownership falls with the supplier. I remeber most of the groceries coming in paper from the veg to the meat. Plastic is both the saviour and downfall.
Simon Mason, Wolverhampton Ex-Pat

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