Observations on sustainability from an American ex-pat living abroad.
I have been living in the United Kingdom for more than a year now, and my eyes have been widened to the world of sustainability that exists outside of the United States. Now, this is a topic which can lean very political but I propose a conversation with a focus on the little things. The things that I have noticed in my daily life which have made the sustainability gap between the US and UK increasingly obvious.
I did not arrive in the UK unbeknownst to sustainable lifestyle practices, in fact I moved here from the US to study sustainable design so, in many ways I have become hyper-aware of the access I personally have to greener and eco-friendly choices.
About me - Welcome to my first ever blog post! My name is Madi and I am so happy you are here (tap
that heart and follow @maditaylordesigns to say hi back). I am originally from New York (US), studied in Savannah, Georgia (US) and then I moved to Edinburgh (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic to pursue my master’s degree in sustainable design. I encourage you to join me on my journey to discovering sustainable lifestyle choices through open conversations and recommendations.
I don’t think I need to be the first to tell you our earth has reached a point of crisis. In recent times, the world has seen an increasing amount of climate-related disasters, climate change has become an irreversible phenomenon but humans hold the potential to mitigate their actions.
At this point we have all heard the buzz words, “climate change”, “global warming”, “carbon offset”, exhausted by the media to the point of desensitizing a portion of the audience. I say that because it has been portrayed as a dark shadow slowly creeping its way towards world destruction. While yes, we are at a point of no return, these issues should be received as a call to wake up, smell the flowers and fertilize them while you’re at it. By that I mean look at how amazing our world is and educate yourself (and others!) on how to preserve while we still can.
You have the potential to influence issues facing our world environmentally and socially. I write this blog to do just that, not to induce fear like the media headlines but to instead recommend creative and fun ways to live more sustainably. I would be lying if I said I was born as an advocate for the world, of course, there was a time where I couldn’t be bothered to separate my recycling or shop consciously. If you are someone who couldn’t imagine making sustainable habit changes, then please subscribe to follow along on my journey and realize the small shifts you can make today.
5 Sustainable habits I have noticed since moving to the United Kingdom...
I haven’t driven a car in over a year and I love it.
Within the first few months of living in the UK I relied solely on my own two feet to get from place to place. This is primarily due to being in the midst of a lockdown which contained us within city limits, however, I now know the city better because of it. Many cities across the UK are pedestrian friendly, Edinburgh has walking and cycling networks with restricted access from vehicular traffic.
I eventually worked up the guts to ride the bus. I used trains and subways many times but I had only taken a public bus a handful of times, they have always seemed so complicated and foreign to me (to be clear, I am not speaking for all Americans, where I grew up did not have convenient public transit and my lifestyle relied on a personal vehicle). The UK’s iconic Double-decker bus is all the glory it is worked up to be. I got to see the city in a whole new way than I did on foot, it is literally an elevated experience. The buses are clean, affordable, convenient, comfortable and easy to map from point A to point B. They are basically the opposite of what people described of US buses. From then on, my opinion on public transportation changed.
A fatal flaw of many American cities and towns is the dominant reliance on personal vehicles. I won’t get into all the potential alternatives that can alleviate this environmental stressor but I will recognize that the American attitude towards owning a car is one that includes freedom, success and pride. In reality, public transportation across the United States is not convenient and therefore undesirable. Because of this there seems to be a stigma created that public transportation, especially buses are bad.
Articles and reports suggest Americans have a multitude of concerns about riding the bus including safety, cleanliness, reliability, time and comfort. People who actually enjoy taking the bus in the US have reported receiving responses from co-workers such as, comments on “the type of people” who take the bus, how much longer it takes, and offering them rides as an alternative.
The stigma towards buses across the US in particular is categorized as hot, slow, dirty and unsafe, this is perhaps because it needs to catch up to the current times. Mass transit is a 20th century technology and the rates of riders are continuously decreasing across the US when it is an opportune time to use public transportation services as a strategy to reduce our ecological footprint.
Is there such a thing as too many bins (garbage cans, for my American folk)?
Walking up to my flat in Edinburgh for the first time, my reaction was, “why are there so many garbage cans outside my door?” I have come to know them as “bins” and, one was black, another was green, others were yellow, purple and blue. What I initially saw as a nuisance became a valued sustainable convenience.
I feel that many Americans have a reluctant attitude towards changing and adapting their daily habits, such as shopping at large retailers/grocery stores and buying in bulk quantities for the sake of convenience, food waste is gross and composting is too much effort, or is it even worth sorting my trash from recycling since it probably isn’t being recycled in the first place? These attitudes come from a lack of resources, incentives and education on waste management in communities.
Edinburgh, and most UK councils, have waste management services for recycling (paper, glass, metal and plastic), food waste and landfill waste. This is the reason for the conveniently located multi-colored bins that line the streets. Most cities I have visited in the US, you may be lucky to find a paper recycling bin and it is highly likely people are mistakenly using it for general waste, making it unrecyclable.
The community takes lead by reaching beyond the services offered by local councils. My local grocery store collects “unrecyclable” plastics (it is important to research the types of materials that your area is capable of recycling, for example many bottle caps are made from HDPE plastics which are unrecyclable in some areas) and delivers them to a local artist cooperative where they are melted down and made into household items like soap dishes and coasters. >> click here to view their products
The Vegan options are unrivaled.
I have followed a vegan lifestyle for over 4 years and the past year living in the UK has been the easiest, especially in terms of diet. I can’t count the number of times I have left a restaurant in the US because they had no vegan options beyond a house salad (boring). In Edinburgh, my issue is quite the opposite… I have too many options and I can’t stop eating.
I literally live above a 100% Plant Based (vegan) grocery store, does it get any better than that? The fact that I don’t need to worry about reading a single label when doing my food shopping is something that would have been unimaginable in the US. The transparency of ingredients is throughout the food industry in the UK. Every restaurant and café has icons on the menu which state the most common dietary restrictions, Vegan (Vg), Vegetarian (V), Gluten-free (GF). This may not be a luxury you understand unless you have a restricted diet so, just imagine the alternative which is reading every listed ingredient on a menu, also confirming with your server who in many cases doesn’t understand your diet and then feeling like a problematic customer (I may be venting a little).
I have also noticed that myself and others shop for food more frequently. The market culture does not support daily shopping, as is accustom in Europe, however households in the UK go food shopping closer to 2-3 times per week while American households average at 1.6 times per week. I find that in Edinburgh this is because we have a variety of convenient local vendors, weekly markets and grocery stores. I have personally adapted the way in which I shop for food, I prioritize local and plastic-free options which tends to lead me to farmers markets once per week and then local groceries as I need items, rather than buying all at once to prevent waste.
The access to fresh, local, healthy and VEGAN food is one of my favorite things about Edinburgh. I am always excited to stumble upon a new café and let me tell you there are several around each corner all of which are likely to serve you plant-based deliciousness.
Shopping locally is fun and affordable.
The Shop Small movement took off in the UK in 2013, led (ironically) by the major corporation, American Express. Shop Small has now made its way as an international movement that “brings together support from the business community, governments and consumers encouraging them to support small businesses in their communities.” The Shop Small label can be seen on many products and business storefronts across the US however, there is a continuous decline in small businesses. The number of US startups have fallen by nearly half of new companies launched annually since the 1970s.
What Americans call “Mom & Pop Shops” are being overrun by major retailers and vanishing from communities. Those that have survived are usually more expensive in order to compensate and keep their doors open. In Edinburgh I have noticed what seems to be a flood of new independent businesses, shops and markets opening during and after lockdowns. Perhaps this is due to incentives and support from the government but, I also feel that the community values these small businesses.
Discovering new businesses to shop locally is a lot of fun. From the unique product selection to knowing the faces at the store, it strengthens your connection to the community.
First, my favorite types of shops (of course food related) are Zero Waste grocery stores and Refilleries (namely The Eco Larder, The Refillery & Weigh To Go). These are places which stock package-free common household products like, detergent, toothpaste, shampoo, as well as pantry and produce items including pasta, cereals, coffee, nuts, beans and so much more. You bring your own containers and pay by weight. Among other sustainable food shops, Edinburgh also has three consistent farmer’s markets throughout the year which include local artists, bakers, produce suppliers and more.
Second, the access to ethical fashion retailers. There are a variety of shops for ethical, vegan and fair trade fashion items. Their intention is not solely to encourage you to buy but to educate the conscious customer too, many of them host blogs and events for this reason. Charity shops (primarily called thrift stores in the US) are also a great source for sustainable shopping. Unlike trendy thrift stores in the US, most charity shops are not for profit (donating to a variety of charity organizations) and therefore very affordable.
The community is more actively engaged.
I feel that the overall community in the UK feels more actively engaged. Although Edinburgh is a major city I feel a sense of neighborly friendliness among complete strangers.
There is a sense of leisure, like enjoying a cup of coffee while sitting in your local coffee shop. In the US the closest coffee shop is usually Starbucks and they are going to make the assumption you would like your drink for takeaway (to-go). You would be handed a plastic cup to walk out with and join the flock of strangers who also accessorize their hand with a plastic mermaid cup. Now of course, the UK has franchised cafes too but they also have more small cafes that are preferred by locals. There is great social value in befriending your local barista, much like knowing the friendly faces that work in your favorite local shops, you don't feel rushed to leave.
Community members and local businesses often host platforms and events. There are a plethora of Facebook groups to join that align with your interests. I am a part of several groups for sharing and trading goods. I recently picked up a meal from someone in my neighborhood after they posted on the Olio app that they “made too much for dinner.” I feel like my mindset has changed since moving to the UK, in the US I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable picking up food from a stranger’s house. It makes me wonder, where has the US gone wrong and how can we fix this?
I have also attended clothing swap events at my local shop. A group of us simply cleared out our unwanted apparel and traded to refresh our wardrobe at no cost to our wallets or the planet.
From supporting local, starting community initiatives and taking advantage of the city’s wonderful amenities like outdoor walks, free museums and community gardens… the UK community (specifically Edinburgh) feels like home to a non-native, like myself.
Overall, I feel my personal goals for living an eco-conscious lifestyle are more supported living in the UK. Perhaps many of my observations of these benefits are due to living in an urban area, as cities have wider access to these amenities. Even so, this is no excuse for the comparatively drastic lack of sustainable practices across the pond in the US.
Whether you are reading from the US or UK I hope that my observations have widened your eyes too, and that they encourage you to keep making sustainable choices, daily.