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I’m Rosie Spinks, addressing you from Quartz’s London office, where I’m based. Long before I took the Tube to work every day, I lived in coastal California, a place where lifestyle-led environmentalism is a good decade ahead of Britain—if you ignore all the cars.
As an environmental studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz—one of the leftist-leaning universities in the US, where the campus library houses the archives of the Grateful Dead—I inadvertently entered into a kind of reverse competition: Who could come to class with the most environmentally-friendly lunch, in the most reusable packaging, in the least carbon-intensive manner? If you were eating a strawberry out of a plastic punnet in February while driving a personal vehicle, you were doing it wrong.
When I moved to London after university, things changed. California’s affordable farmers markets and cavernous health food stores were replaced by Camden’s painfully expensive boutique Whole Foods. And so, almost by default, my lifestyle of ostentatious environmentalism gave way to another one: cheap convenience.
Suddenly, rather than cycling to class on the campus’ 30-acre organic farm with a vegetarian lunch stowed in my Patagonia backpack, I was battling rush hour with a disposable coffee cup in hand. As I rushed between meetings and part-time jobs, one more Coke can, plastic fork, sandwich wrapper, or sushi container seemed a small price to pay for urban survival. But it does have a price. Disposable isn’t free—it’s just the planet, rather than our wallets, that is picking up the tab.
More recently, my crunchy university habits have been making a comeback—but if I’m being honest, for less crunchy reasons. I buy my coffee in a charming glass Keep Cup each morning and the novelty of a 50p discount from Pret a Manger, along with the cup’s textural cork band and pleasing weight, has yet to wear off.
I’ve also started packing my lunch in a porcelain container most days, treating plastic-wrapped, store-bought sandwiches as occasional indulgences. Lastly, the farmers market is making a comeback in my Saturday morning routine. (I recently found a tiny neon green caterpillar in my kale, which was a small thrill.)
Would these actions make me an eco-warrior by Santa Cruz standards? Nope. But they make my daily London life feel a little more premium.
The UK has been having an eco-aware moment, too. As my colleague Eshe Nelson reported recently, there is growing support for imposing a £0.25 ($0.35) “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups, which behavioral economics tells us is far more effective motivator than offering a discount. (Currently, less than 1% of the 2.5 billion cups Britons toss annually are recycled). When Britain instated a country-wide 5p tax on plastic bags in 2015, the effects were enormous: Plastic bag usage dropped by more than 80% in the first year.
This drop could be because sensible Britons, on principle, object to being charged even 5p for something that used to be free. But I suspect it’s also because people started to realize how useless plastic bags are, especially when compared a sturdy and reliable tote, like the charmingly utilitarian nylon ones sold by Baggu. The patterns are addictive—croissants! cacti!—and they’ll never rip on a rainy walk home.
If I’ve marveled at the benefits of any one premium lifestyle shift recently, it is the double edge safety razor I bought last year online. For the uninitiated: A safety razor is probably what your grandpa shaved with. It uses just one blade, secured at a perpendicular angle to the handle in a T-shape, which means you can use shave with both sides of the blade (rather than the multiple angled blades of modern, overly-packaged razors).
The weighty feel and old-timey design of this Edwin Jagger model make it both a pleasing object to hold and to behold. Each time I use it I am left wondering: Why did I use inferior pink plastic razors for over a decade? Ten stainless steel razor blades cost less than £5, and last me about ten months. Far from being disposable, I plan to use it for life.
These actions won’t single-handedly save the world, but they will cut down a little bit on the staggering amount of plastic waste that, whether we think about it or not, will languish in the earth for centuries. And taken as a whole, they make life’s least glamorous moments—a takeaway coffee, schlepping groceries, shaving one’s legs—a little more luxurious. I’m starting to think that counts for a lot.
Another crunchy life upgrade: Move more. And no, I don’t mean barre class and boot camp. When compared to exercise, movement is a humbler, subtler, and easier practice to implement in dozens of ways throughout our day.
After years of intense running took its toll on me, it was a challenge for me to find mellower ways to get out of my head and into my body. But Katy Bowman, the author of Movement Matters, showed me how embracing everyday physical actions—resting in a squat for a couple minutes, walking instead of driving (or getting off the train one stop early), or shopping for and prepping a weekend meal from scratch—can benefit my body. And the London-based yoga instructor Tracey Ellis introduced me to the pure joy of a daily stretching routine enhanced by supportive, squishy props: a sticky mat, a foam block, and a heavy bolster. (See: “floor life.”) For at least 20 minutes every morning, I get close to the earth instead of a screen. It’s simple but it works.
Have a great weekend!
Congratulations for making it through January, by the way. Don’t let the late winter pass you by without properly paying homage to citrus, whether tart satsumas, sweet clementines, or ruby red grapefruit. In her excellent newsletter, British food writer and Great British Bake Off alum Ruby Tandoh elevated the humble food: “An orange demands of you that you feel the weight of it in your palm and run a curious finger across its pockmarked skin. Pierced with a finger or thumb, the skin mists the air with scent and tickles across the tip of your nose. It is bitter pith, fragrant peel, sweet juice and tang.”