Rubbish diaries: Six households reveal just how much waste they create

If you were to sift through your rubbish and recycling bins, just how much waste would you find?

From takeaways and toothbrushes to cotton wool and cat food pouches, the UK generated 222.2million tonnes of total waste in a year, according to latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

While the UK recycling rate for waste from households is on the increase, it’s alarming to know that it’s not just rubbish – we’re also wasting 4.5mtonnes of food each year.

But what can we do about it and who, if anyone, is to blame? To find out, we asked six families to tell us just how much waste they produced in a week and what #Just1Change they would make to help the planet.

Here’s how they got on…

Ndah and Valentine Mbawa

Ndah says: We are very conscious of what waste goes where as we try to train the children in the habit of recycling and energy conservation. Sometimes, it’s the children keeping us on track.

Monday: We have a cat and when I fed him this morning it struck me that we don’t really think about how much waste she produces and where it should go. She has dried food, but also a pouch every day and I’ve never once thought about whether that can be recycled or not, as they have a metallic looking inside. I need to investigate more…

Tuesday: We do try to be as green as possible, and today I am making sure that everything goes in its correct place. For example, if I take any plastic wrapping off anything, I’m ensuring nothing that is non-recyclable goes into the recyclable bin and that all food waste goes into the caddy.

Wednesday: It’s day three and I’m already spotting how much we throw out – canned tomatoes, juice boxes, plastic and glass bottles, crisps, cat litter… I know it can sometimes look more than it is, especially with recycling, as it’s hard to fold down, but it’s still amazing how much we get through even though we try hard to be green.

Thursday: We run two businesses and one is a subscription service called A Gran Smile, which people use to send gift boxes to their elderly loved ones. It means we tend to have quite a bit of inventory arrive in cardboard boxes and I’m realising now how much paper and cardboard is a culprit in our waste levels. I know it’s recyclable but we could still probably cut down on how much we use.

Friday: We like cooking food from scratch, which means our kitchen waste mainly constitutes cans, cooking oil bottles, plastic packaging and food peelings. However, on a Friday we do like to get the odd takeaway, which I know generates cardboard and plastic waste.

Saturday: Today is ‘big shop’ day and a real eye-opener into how much plastic supermarkets and suppliers use. From plastic-wrapped grapes and plums to the little bit used to seal top of bottles and containers, like ketchup or mayo. There’s just no need.

Sunday: Having three children means we do create a fair bit of rubbish. There’s lots of cleaning always to be done, which doesn’t always include eco-friendly products, and now they’re older I’m noticing the kids don’t always recycle as much as they could – I sometimes find the odd crisp bag and yoghurt pot in the bins in their rooms.

Conclusion: Keeping track of our rubbish has made me realise the huge amount of waste that is being brought back from supermarkets and shops. I never appreciated just how much there is that is non-recyclable as it usually just goes in the bag without me noticing the quantity. 

My #Just1Change: Buy less – or try buying only as we need more often, so we’re not generating waste from unused or expired food items.

Vic Paterson and Greg Pritchard

Vic says: We’ve always tried to be reasonably ecologically friendly. Our local authority is one of the few places in the UK that doesn’t use wheelie bins – it’s all rubbish sacks (recyclable and non-recyclable), so we get a bit of a feel for how much we’re throwing away. However, as we run a soft tissue therapy business from our home, it does tend to generate quite a lot of waste, which is annoying. 

Monday: The first thing to get chucked out was a carton of oat milk and a plastic milk carton, both recyclable so they got rinsed and put in the recycling! We also received some junk mail – despite not ever remembering signing up for it – and a load of mailbox leaflets, none of which appealed to us and all of which went straight in the bin. I feel bad for the companies sending them. 

Tuesday: Our dogs eat dry food that we normally buy in big bulk bags. However, we’ve ran out so it’s an emergency trip to the local supermarket for a smaller bag and a few items for the house. I make sure to take a couple of packable nylon bags rather than forgetting and then buying a reusable carrier bag. 

Wednesday: More junk mail. The dogs have gone through one bag of dog food, so I’ll need to get another tomorrow. The business is busy, so the home cooked meals of the last two nights are abandoned for frozen food from the supermarket. Although masks are no longer compulsory, I’m still wearing N95 masks, but they come individually wrapped, which makes me feel quite guilty. 

Thursday: I love my hot chocolate machine, but the grated chocolate that is sold for the machine comes in single serve sachets, which seemed quick, easy and a little indulgent when I bought them. Although the sachets are made out of paper, I find myself wondering why it doesn’t come in jars or a large bag – surely that would be more environmentally friendly? I go to the supermarket and pick up a lightweight mop that comes with disposable wipes pre-prepared with disinfectant. It seems like a good idea for our wellness clinic, State 11, although there’s lots of cardboard in the packaging and I try not to think too much about the wipes.

Friday: With work being full on for the last couple of days, we’ve resorted to some protein based, add-hot-water type meals to grab and go, which means very little waste as they come in large multi-serving bags. I also finish a packet of antihistamines and can’t help but think the packaging could be a lot smaller.  

Saturday: I’m not sure how we’ve gone through so much milk this week – or cheese! My favourite is a smoked one that only comes in slices. Thankfully, the packaging is easier to recycle now that there isn’t little pieces of thin plastic between each slice (which wasn’t recyclable) but the downside is the slices all stick together. We’ve also finished a couple of spray bottles, which you could refill with concentrate and dilute with tap water. Surely that would be better? 

Sunday: It’s the end of the week, so I check the business rubbish. We use a lot of kineseology tape, which comes in large cardboard boxes, and each piece of tape has backing paper. It’s all recyclable, but still seems a lot.

Conclusion: I was quite pleased about how much of what we had was recyclable, but I wish there was some way to easily ‘unsubscribe’ from the junk mail! Our bulk buying means there’s less individual packaging but keeping the diary for the week meant I was much more aware than usual of what we do have that comes in individual packaging. 

Our #Just1Change: We’re going to put a sign up on the door saying no flyers and get ourselves removed from mailing lists.  

Ellie Good

Ellie says: I have been concerned about climate change since I was a child – at seven I wrote to my MP to ask for glass recycling! I am now involved with a community-focused environmental campaign group called Eco Action Families, but struggle to live as green as I would like as running my own illustration business and looking after my family leaves very little time for trips to the plastic free shops.

Monday: I’m frustrated by the amount of paper marketing that was dropped through the front door this morning. I need to get one of those letterbox stickers that says ‘no junk mail’.

Tuesday: I love a good cup of coffee in the morning, but hate that you can’t easily get coffee in a bag that’s at the very least reusable or recyclable. I will need to look for a small indie roaster I think as the commercial brands are not yet ready to package theirs responsibly.

Wednesday: I have a horrible cold. I normally try to stoically sit out minor illness, but this is a real stinker. I hate blister packs and sachets, but today I am grateful for what’s inside them.

Thursday: I was satisfied to send off two wholesale orders of my products using only upcycled packaging (boxes, bubble wrap etc) that I had received from buying things online. #Rubbishwin! However, I also had to throw away a plastic pot today because it had no recycling information on it. #Rubbishfail.

Friday: Today I feel angry that I spend so much time separating waste. Yes, certain things like food should be my responsibility, but companies and the government must shoulder more of the burden here. For example, I bought a pair of shorts for my son online, which arrived in two plastic bags, one with a built-in hanger, plus a cardboard insert. So much waste for one pair of shorts.

Saturday: Only put two small things in the general waste today. Hurrah! I try so hard to keep plastic waste down when feeding the children, but sometimes I buy picnic stuff in the supermarket, which always come in a plastic box – and I never know whether it is recyclable or not.

Sunday: I’ve got friends over but am feeling quite drained and didn’t have the energy to cook, so I bought some things from COOK, a company I think has a conscience. A lot of the packaging was card, but I do wonder if the plastic trays that the nibbles came in will make it to the recycling plant, or just get tipped in the sea, or onto a mountain of plastic in another country… I wash them up too, before I put them in the recycling. It annoys me that this may be in vain.

Conclusion: This week has shown me that I definitely work hard to keep us as green as possible, but there’s still so much plastic. I am chronically aware of it all and hate that I can’t do better.

My #Just1Change: Finding a coffee brand with sustainable packaging and getting a ‘NO JUNK’ sticker for my letterbox.

Gen and Charles Edwards

Gen says: Our ‘waste’ habits have definitely changed over time and we’ve definitely noticed how packaging has moved on over the years. We seem to generate more than ever, even now there’s just the two of us, as the kids have moved out. Recycling also really bothers me, as I’d like to think that most of my waste is recycled or composted, but I always wonder what happens to the rest of it?

Monday: I am grimacing every time I separate packaging and put some in the recycle bag, and some in the dustbin. For example, tomato or fruit packaging tends to be 50/50 with half recyclable in the form of paper or card cartons or plastic trays; the other half a throw-away cellophane – or plastic-type wrap.

Tuesday: While food shopping today, I notice that despite buying bespoke drawstring muslin-type bags from the supermarket for me to place loose fruit and veg, most of the time the stuff that could could be loose – apples, pears, tomatoes, avocados – is pre-packaged anyway so I seldom use these bags.

Wednesday: I work as an Intuitive Energy Healer and my last session often finishes around 6:15pm and the last thing I want to do then is start making a meal from scratch, so I tend to buy HelloFresh (cardboard boxes, lots of fiddly little containers) or ready-made supermarket meals (tinfoil trays, cardboard packaging and cellophane that must be removed before popping in the oven). Tonight I opt for baked beans on toast and scrambled eggs – and believe it or not, I recycle my eggshells by crushing and using them in the garden as fertilizer.

Thursday: I think I drink far too many iced coffee products – apart from the dodgy health aspect of too much sugar, the plastic cups add up. I do like the new paper straws from the brand I buy, but never quite know if they drift off, divorced from the rest of my recyclables (like socks in a washing machine) and end up in rivers anyway?

Friday: Charles likes fish on Fridays so earlier in the week I bought a delicious fish pie from the supermarket – wrapped in a tinfoil tray, a cardboard wrapper and a cellophane sheet. More recycling and downright throwaways! Gulp.

Saturday: Had a Chinese takeaway for dinner tonight. Although it comes in plastic containers, I’m OK with that – we wash them and re-use them to pack food in the fridge or deepfreeze, also to take snacks with us on road-trips.

Sunday: I do the odd mop around the place on weekends if I can be bothered and generally we use loo products that are quite toxic for the environment – there’s more plastic too, of course.

Conclusion: At the end of the week, we noticed that our throw-away, black bin rubbish is maybe half the volume of the recyclables. I think in principle we’re doing the ‘right thing’ – but we definitely need to make more of an effort to ‘reduce’ in the first place.

My #Just1Change: I’ve stopped drinking packaged iced coffee and started making it myself at home. No more straws!

Sonali Saujani

Sonali says: I am quite excited to do this as, like most people, I throw things away without thinking. One thing that I have noticed is as much as I love how accessible Amazon and online shopping is, the packaging definitely needs looking at, so it will be interesting to see just how much waste it really creates.

Monday: As I’m only expecting one delivery this week, I realise that how many packages I get really does impact the amount of rubbish I’ll create. Sometimes it can be up to three or four a week, as I tend to bulk buy things like washing pods and dog food. I also notice today how much kitchen roll I use to clean up, so am trying to use reusable cloths sometimes. 

Tuesday: A lot of my general rubbish comes from my French bulldog, Luna. Not only is it her food, but also her medication. She is on several types for her skin. The one that causes the most rubbish is one called Atopica, it comes like human medication, in a box, with a leaflet and four sheets of plastic, each containing just five tablets. I also clean her with wipes as she has allergies – I don’t like using them, but they are medicated, so it’s really an easy option.

Wednesday: This was a really busy work day for me, I spent most of it on my laptop, on client calls. I drink Nepresso coffee a couple of times a day and I must admit that at first I did worry about what happened to the pods. But then I discovered there was a recycling scheme, so I collect all my pods in a bin, and transfer them to the bags Nespresso provide, and they collect them when I call them to. So there’s no rubbish there.

Thursday: I went out today so actually put on makeup – which meant I had to use cotton pads to take it off again. If I’d gone out more I’d obviously be throwing away more, but it’s been a quiet week for me. I have tried reuseable make up pads such as the Halo, but they need constant washing, so felt that maybe it could be a waste of water and electricity in itself? Instead, I’ve switched back to disposable cotton pads.

Friday: I have a grey bin where I put all the rubbish from my business called Enigma, which sells crystals. A while back, clients began to request packaging that is as eco-friendly as possible, which I try to do. Sometimes it’s not as minimalistic as would like. I want people to imagine they are opening a gift as crystals are a form of self love. But in hindsight, this probably creates a lot of rubbish on their end – just not much mine.

Saturday: Looking at my food waste, most of it has come from breakfast, where I like to eat eggs in the morning. My boyfriend came round and cooked pizza last night too, so there’s a little bit of waste from that.

Sunday: Today was a really quiet day for me, so I pottered about the kitchen a bit and cleaned up using resuable cloths (a la Mrs Hinch!).

Conclusion: This week has definitely made me more conscious of the amount I throw away. I need to start using more reusable things like my kitchen cloths. I think I am doing an alright job, for now, but I also think it’s down to the bigger companies to make sure they are thinking about the amount of rubbish they produce. 

My #Just1Change: Use less kitchen roll!

Jolene and Gavin Phillips Howell

Jolene says: I was very excited and dubious at the start of this experiment. Being a family with two small children, I expected to have lots of waste, and did wonder where I was going to store it all for the week!

Monday: We always remove all items from their outside packaging and pour them into containers or baskets straight away. As I’m doing this, I notice just how much packaging comes with stuff. Our cereal gets poured into pouring containers, crisps and snacks loosely put into tubs. It’s so annoying that we could literally fill a whole bag for life with the excess waste that comes from that!

Tuesday: We use HelloFresh four times a week for two people. I find the packaging to be very minimal due to the small amount of ingredients provided – I know some people find the sachets a waste, but in my opinion, there would be a lot more packaging if I were to buy the full-sized ingredients from the supermarket.

Wednesday: As I put more packaging into the wheelie bin I make a mental note to recycle my own waste into something useful when I can, such as crafts for the children with cereal boxes. I run a gift company called Obscenity Cards from home, and over the last five years I’ve learned to reuse every bit of packaging I receive. The only wastage I get is the little cellophane strips that I peel off to seal my cards, but I changed to biodegradable cellophane card wrappers last year so that doesn’t worry me.

Thursday: As I make the kids packed lunches for school, I can see that snack wrapping seems to be the most wasteful. I’m always filling up the recycling with wrappers, crisp bags etc. We all go through a lot of snacks in the week and it’s made me think very strongly about how I could further reduce that waste. Thankfully, almost all of it is recyclable, but it’s still a lot more than I thought it would be!

Friday: My husband and I are doing Sober October – had we done this another month, we would have had a fair amount more included in the collected waste this week! Even so, knowing that we’d normally get through two or three wine bottles and up to 12 lager cans/bottles – it does make me think about how much waste comes from that. 

Saturday: I try to use as little cleaning products as possible – for example, I use warm soapy cloths for wiping down surfaces, dry cloths for dusting, etc. I don’t use surface wipes nor do I use a lot of bleach, sprays or polish. The only real regular cleaning waste is washing tablet boxes and discarded wet wipes, which my children use a lot of. This does make me feel guilty as I’m aware they’re not good for the environment, but it’s a kind of necessary evil when it comes to snot and other bodily fluids we won’t mention!

Sunday: We do our main shopping today and having seen how much waste we accumulate from the snack type foods, I would like to see more items packaged with a strong paper as opposed to plastic such as small packets of sweets, small chocolate bars, breakfast bars, that type of thing. I have always bought fruit and veg loose where I can, as it’s much more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective – but it’s not so easily available where I live, unless I travel further to a larger supermarket, which usually isn’t convenient.   

Conclusion: I’m very surprised how little waste we have after a week. We use wheelie bins and it appears lot more when looking inside an unorganised, full, messy bin. We are doing a lot better than we thought as a family of four and I feel quite proud – although, there’s always room for improvement!

Our #Just1Change: Cut down on wet wipes.

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