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In the United Kingdom, Is Sust a Must or a Bust?

By Sustainability Office on November 9, 2017
-Madison Smith ’19

Upon arriving to Manchester, England in early September to begin my study abroad adventure, I was not entirely sure what to expect in terms of sustainability. Would it be similar to sustainability at home where we struggle to recycle more than 15% of our waste and where climate change is still a wildly partisan issue despite scientific consensus? Or would it be like a utopian society in which everything runs on solar power and people never forget to pack their reusable straws? I attest that my findings have landed somewhere in between.


In general, sustainability appears to be more engrained in everyday life. For example, the University of Manchester supplied sufficient recycling bins and directions to both my apartment kitchen and my individual bedroom before I even got there. Vegetarian and vegan food options are widely available and clearly labeled at most, if not all, restaurants in the city. Plastic and paper bags cost 5 pence at all stores, which very quickly forces you to carry around a backpack or a reusable shopping bag. Finally, due to the adequate bike paths and positive stigma surrounding bikers, one may actually be more likely to get hit by a biker than a car while walking around – a bad thing for an oblivious pedestrian like myself, but a great thing for reducing carbon emissions.


On the other hand, the U.K. has some tendencies that I have found more wasteful and problematic. I don’t think anything can illustrate this better than the time I found an unpeeled orange in a plastic container. To further explain, it is very common for people to buy prepared food at small grocery and convenience stores throughout the day. The sandwiches, salads, etc. are always dressed in heavy plastic and cardboard packaging, and yes, this includes the produce, whether it be raw or ready to eat. I am more accustomed to having to bag our own produce in the U.S., and thus having the option to bring a reusable bag or skip the bag altogether. Here, that autonomy does not exist and if you want the sandwich or broccoli or unpeeled orange, you also get the unnecessary plastic.

It is by no means a perfect system, but the U.K. has nonetheless progressed to certain policies and practices that we are just starting to talk about in the U.S. I would love to investigate beyond my initial observations and look at other areas in which the U.K. may surpass, or perhaps lag behind, the U.S. in terms of sustainability, such as food waste, renewable energy sources, and distribution of environmental burdens. I will keep you all posted!