Ode to the five litres tank

You may remember that last year I wrote about a “plastics free” store, selling spices, oil, and even laundry detergent. I have no idea how they are faring with the current pandemic, but let’s just say that unless they turned into a conventional store, there’s no way that I would be interested in going and buy spices, nuts and pasta from huge containers that are handled by dozens of customers per day — and particularly by kids sticking their grubby fingers into the nuts’ boxes to steal a macadamia.

Even if the concept would have been workable before, I doubt that after this whole experience it’s going to thrive — while I care about the planet, I care about not dying more, and I assume the same is going to be true for the vast majority of the public (but not everyone, I’m sure). So what are the alternative options to buying without plastic containers? I can only think of the idea of buying in bulk.

Back at the start of the lockdown, one of the things that was getting harder to find in the local supermarkets was soap — and if you have read the blog post linked above, you know that I’ve been using refills. In particular at home we have a very nice glass, 1L liquid soap dispenser bottle that came with some decent lavender liquid soap we bought in TkMaxx over a year ago, and we’ve been filling it with different brands’ soap, that are usually available around the £4/L mark. We had a couple of litres stashed away, but eventually they started running low.

So looking around we found a 5L tank of hand wash, targeted as commercial users, but easy to get a hold of in the pandemic. It’s a bit more expensive than what we found before, but we liked it better, particularly given the fact that it has not ruined my hands, despite us washing our hands a lot more than before. And that had me thinking that most most likely the 5L tank can be reused, rather than recycled, much more easily. For instance, you can use it to collect waste oil when deep frying, and then bring it to the correct recycling point for that. Or in any case you can throw it with the recycling.

But it’s not just the plastic involved that makes a difference. Just think of how often you would need to get these delivered in half a litre increment. The 5L tank is due to last us just about five months, so you get around two deliveries a year, instead of about two a months (or once a month if you can just order the refills in pairs). And because we liked the quality of the soap, we ended up ordering the shampoo from the same brand, and fill a plastic bottle instead; at least for my hair it works well, and I’m picky — and it costs nearly half per liter than my usual ones.

There’s more than shampoo and soap that can be bought in 5L tanks. Body wash, fabric softener, vegetable oil, … and liter-for-liter they clearly need less plastics, if that’s the main measure we use for pollution, and they require fewer trips to shops and fewer deliveries. They are a bit awkward to use sometimes (thus why we have a 1L bottle we pour the vegetable we use for cooking), but the main disadvantage is that they take space, and while we’re lucky to have enough space for them in our flat, I don’t think I’d have been able to make the space for them in Dublin (didn’t help that the closet had a ton of stuff left over from the landlord and the previous tenants, including umbrellas, 5cm square framed mirrors, and stuff like that).

And I’m taking the 5L tanks as an example, but they are a metonymy for a number of other bought-in-bulk items, many of which are hard to find here in London. Even toilet paper, another staple of lockdown hoarding: Dublin and London got me used to order it in 16- or 9-roll bags, while in Italy I was used to buying 48/64 rolls at a time. It’s non-perishable, and if you do have the space to just get it and stuff it somewhere until you need it, why increasing the number of times you need to order it?

Funny story here: when I moved to London, and found out that my local Sainsbury’s didn’t have anything over 4 rolls bags, I decided that it would be easier to order 60 rolls from Amazon and have it delivered. The cost was meaningfully lower, and at the time I was not setting up for groceries’ delivery, and rather going to the stores myself to pick up just the stuff I needed for the days — bringing toilet paper on the bus is bulky and uncomfortable. Unfortunately i forgot to check where I asked Amazon to deliver it, and I ended up receiving nearly a cubic meter of toilet paper to my office, and had to find a way to bring it home, considering it took me an hour to go from King’s Cross to home, between Piccadilly and bus. Thankfully, two trips with my Filson duffle bag at a late hour were enough to bring it home. I love that duffle bag.

What I’m suggesting is that city living needs to start adapting to the idea that people need storage space. When looking at apartments, you can’t but wonder what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, between the lack of cupboard storage and the just-in-time supply used by most grocery stores in the big cities. Maybe in five years we will all live in apartments that have enough cupboard storage that you only need to buy non-perishables once a month, and the local stores will be providing fresh food and only urgent needs.

There’s also another clear problem with getting people to use bulk-volume non-perishables: beside Amazon, very few sellers carry those as options, at least in the UK. Yes, there’s Costco here just like in the USA, but that’s not common, and you do need to make sure you account for the £15/yr options. In Italy if you have a VAT ID you often end up shopping at Metro, because that’s an option that opens up to you…

Again, this is the type of thing that needs to be adapted for, after this whole pandemic happened. Reducing the frequency of deliveries by buying in bulk should be favourable for both grocery stores and consumers, given how the panic buying broke most delivery systems. So maybe next year Morrisons will have more 5L tanks of stuff available for delivery, not just the vegetable oil.

Environment and Software Freedom — Elitists Don’t Get It

I have previously complained loudly about “geek supremacists” and the overall elitist stance I have seen in Free Software, Open Source, and general tech circles. This shows up not just in a huge amount of “groupthink” that Free Software is always better, as well as in jokes that may sound funny at first, but are actually trying to exclude people (e.g. the whole “Unix chooses its friends” line).

There’s a similar attitude that I see around environmentalism today, and it makes me uneasy, particularly when it comes to “fight for the planet” as some people would put it. It’s not just me, I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere reporting similar concerns. One obvious case is the lack of thought given to inclusion and accessibility: whether it is a thorough attack of pre-peeled oranges with no consideration to those who are not able to hold a knife, or waste-shaming with the infamous waste jars (as an acquaintance reported, and I can confirm the same is true for me, would fill up in a fraction of the expected time just from medicine blisters).

Now the problem is that, while I have expressed my opinions about Free Software and activists a number of times in the past, I have no experience or expert opinion to write a good critique of environmentalist groups, which means I can only express my discomfort and leave it to someone else. Although I wrote about this in the past.

What I can provide some critique of, though, is an aspect that I recently noticed in my daily life, and for which I can report directly, at least for a little bit. And it goes back to the zero-waste topic I mentioned in passing above. I already said that the waste produced just by the daily pills I take (plus the insulin and my FreeStyle Libre sensors) goes beyond what some of the more active environmentalists consider appropriate. Medicine blisters, insulin pens, and the sensors’ applicators are all non-recyclable waste. This means that most of the encouragement to limit waste is unreachable for most people on medications.

The next thing I’m going to say is that waste reduction is expensive, and not inclusive of most people who don’t have a lot of spare disposable cash.

Want a quick example? Take hand wash refills. Most of the people I know use liquid soap, and they buy a new bottle, with a new pump, each time it finishes. Despite ceramic soap bottle being sold in most homeware stores, I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone I know using one. And even when my family used those for a little while, they almost always used a normal soap bottle with the pump. That’s clearly wasteful, so it’s not surprising that, particularly nowadays, there’s a lot of manufacturers providing refills — pouches, usually made with thinner, softer plastic, with a larger amount of soap, that you can use to either refill the original bottles, or to use with one of those “posh” ceramic bottles. Some of the copy on the those pouches explicitly state «These refill pouches use 75% less plastic per ml of product than a [brand] liquid handwash pump (300 ml), to help respect the environment.»

The problem with these refills, at least here in London, is that they are hard to come by, and only a few, expensive brands appear to provide them. For instance you can get refills for L’Occitane hand wash, but despite liking some of their products, at home we are not fond of their hand wash, particularly not at £36 a litre (okay, £32.4 with the recycling discount). Instead we ended up settling on Dove’s hand wash, which you can buy in most stores for £1 for the 250ml bottle (£4/litre). Dove does make refills and sell them, and at least in Germany, Amazon sells them for a lower per-litre price than the bottle. But those refills are not sold in the UK, and if you wanted to order them from overseas they would be more expensive (and definitely not particularly environmentally friendly).

If the refills are really making such a difference as the manufacturers insist they do, they should be made significantly more affordable. Indeed, in my opinion you shouldn’t be able to get the filled bottles alone at all, and they should rather be sold bundled with the refills themselves, at a higher per-liter price.

But price is clearly not the only problem — handwash is something that is subjected to personal taste a lot since our hands are with us all day long. People prefer no fragrance, or different fragrances. The fact that I can find the whopping total of two handwash refills in my usual local stores, that don’t cost more than the filled bottle is not particularly encouraging.

Soap is not the only the thing for which the “environmentally conscious” option is far from affordable. Recently, we stumbled across a store in Chiswick that sells spices, ingredients and household items plastic free, mostly without containers (bring your own, or buy it from them), and we decided to try it, easily since I’ve been saving up the glass containers from Nutella and the jams, and we had two clean ones at home for this.

This needs a bit more context: both me and my wife love spicy food in general, and in particular love mixing up a lot of different spices when making sauces or marinades, which means we have a fairly well stocked spice cupboard. And since we consume a lot of them, we have been restocking them with bags of spices rather than with new bottles (which is why we started cleaning and setting aside the glass jars), so the idea of finding a place where you can fill your own jar was fairly appealing to me. And while we did expect a bit of a price premium given the location (we were in Chiswick after all), it was worth a try.

Another caveat on all of this: the quality, choice and taste of ingredients are not obvious. They are, by definition, up to personal taste. Which means that doing a direct price-by-price comparison is not always possible. But at the same time, we do tend to like the quality of spices we find, so I think we’ve been fair when we boggled at the prices, and in particular at the prices fluctuation between different ingredients. So I ended up making a quick comparison table, based off the prices on their website, and the websites of Morrisons and Waitrose (because, let’s be honest, that’s probably the closest price comparison you want to make, as both options are clearly middle-to-upper class).

Price comparison between Source, Morrisons, Waitrose and the Schwartz brand spices. More accessible on Google Drive.
I’ve taken the cheapest priced option for all the searches, looking for bigger sizes.

If you look at the prices, you can see that, compared with the bottled spices, they are actually fairly competitive! I mean cumin costs over four times if you buy it in bottle at Waitrose, so getting it cheaper is definitely a steal… until you notice that Morrisons stocks a brand (Rajah) that is half the price. Indeed, Rajah appears to sell spices in big bags (100g or 400g), and at a significantly lower price than most of the other options. In personal taste, we love them.

A few exceptions do come to mind: sumac is not easy to find, and it’s actually cheaper at Source. Cayenne pepper is (unsurprisingly) cheaper than Waitrose, and not stocked at Morrisons at all, so we’ll probably pop by again to fill in a large jar of it. Coarse salt is cheaper, and even cheaper than the one I bought on Amazon, but I bought 3Kg two years ago and we still have one unopened bag.

The one part of the pictures that the prices don’t tell, of course, is the quality and the taste. I’ll be very honest and say that I personally dislike the Waitrose extra virgin olive oil I chose the price of (although it’s a decent oil); the Morrisons one is not the cheapest, but that one tasted nasty when I tried it, so I went for the one we actually usually buy. Since we ran out of oil at home, and we needed to buy some anyway, we are now using Source’s and, well, I do like it actually better than Morrisons, so we’ll probably stick to buying it, despite it being more expensive — it’s still within the realm of reasonable prices for good extra virgin olive oil. And they sell it in a refillable bottle, so next time we’ll use that one again.

Another thing that is very clear from the prices is just how much the “organic” label appears to weigh in on the cost of food. I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay four times the price for sunflower oil — and while it is true that I’m comparing the prices of a huge family bottle with that of a fill-your-own-bottle shop, which means you can get less of it at a time, and you pay for that convenience, it’s also one of the more easily stored groceries, so I think it’s fair enough.

And by the way, if you followed my twitter rant, I have good news. Also in Chiswick there’s a Borough Kitchen store, old good brick-and-mortar, and they had a 1L bottle for an acceptable £5.

So where does this whole rant get us? I think that the environment needs for activists to push for affordable efforts. It’s not useful if the zero-waste options are only available to the top 5%. I have a feeling that indeed for some of the better, environmentally aware options we’ll have to pay more. But that should not mean paying £5 for a litre of sunflower oil! We should make sure we can feed the people in the world, if you think that the world is worth saving, and do so in a reasonable way.

Before closing let me just point out the obvious: Source appears to have their heart in the right place with this effort. Having had my own business, I’m sure that the prices reflect the realities of renting a space just off Chiswick High Road, paying for the staff, the required services, the suppliers, and the hidden cost of families with children entering the store and letting their kids nibble on the candies and nuts straight out of the boxes (I’ve seen at least one while we were inside!), without paying or buying anything else.

What I fear we really need is this type of services to scale to the level of big high street grocery stores. Maybe with trade-in containers in place of bring-your-own for deliveries (which I would argue can be more environmentally-friendly than people having to take a car to go grocery shopping). But that’s something I can only hope for.

Yesterday’s Disruptors, Today’s Encumbents

You know, I always found it annoying how online stores such as Amazon, or even IKEA, have been defined “disruptors” all these years. But nowadays I can mostly see how they changed the rules of the game, particularly in favour of the customers themselves, against their own workers, and suppliers. And so, nowadays, I can accept that they have been called that way for a reason.

Of course that’s not to say that I agree them being called that way still.

Since I have moved to London last year, I have been using both Amazon and IKEA shipping quite a bit, whether it is for the random bits and bobs (Amazon) or full blown household furniture (IKEA). It’s kind of needed sometimes, or at least very convenient, because you know there’s selection and (usually) good customer support.

But at the same time, things are no longer smooth as they used to be. Or maybe they are just as smooth, but we (I) got to expect better from them.

Let’s take IKEA: I wanted to order a number of items from them just last week: a garbage bin, a bedding set and some extra towels, as well as some spice jars. I put everything in my “bag”, and tried checking out. Somehow the PayPal integration failed, the loading page got stuck, and I tried restarting… and the site decided to lock my bag “for up to 45 minutes” because of the incomplete checkout.

I’m not sure how the locking is done and timed out, because an hour later it still didn’t let me order, despite logging out and back in. So I ended up going to Marks and Spencer’s website and order (more expensive) bedding set and towels from there. Alas their shipping option appears to be significantly worse as a track record (it got split into three deliveries, and only one made to my office’s mailroom by the expected date, but it was not urgent at all). But the checkout worked perfectly fine.

Unfortunately M&S didn’t have a bin, so I looked for one at Amazon and found something I liked for £25, so on Friday I ordered it with a “nominated day delivery” of Tuesday. That should be enough lead time, no? I also ordered a smaller trash container for the bathroom, to throw things like the non-sharps injection side-results.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when I took a day off work (because I needed to relax anyway), which I spent assembling the daybed I got from IKEA… a year ago (oops!) By 2pm I see that the smaller of the two bins is “Out for delivery”, but the bigger one (the one I really needed!) was not. Although with an expected delivery of the same day, between 7am and 10pm. I have immediately contacted Amazon on Twitter, pointing out the low likelihood of them delivery on the day, but they insisted that it was still going to be delivered.

Cue 4pm when I get an email (but obviously enough no Android push notification) that tells me that they are sorry, but a delay caused the delivery to be skipped on the day and that it would happen in a one-week window following it.

You read that right. They suggested that, for an item that was meant to delivered on October 2nd, and missed delivery, the new delivery window would be October 3rd to 9th. You can imagine just how happy, as a customer, I would be about that. So I called Amazon up, and asked them to cancel the delivery, because I already skipped a day of work (sure I was going to take the day off anyway, but I could have gone out to Kew Gardens instead of staying in to wait for them), and I wouldn’t want to spend an unbound amount of days home in the hope that they would be able to deliver a garbage bin. They confirmed it would be done and an email sent to me “within 24-48 hours” and I thanked them.

Then, I ordered a (different) bin on Argos. They actually had the same bin, but at £32. I didn’t need anything as fancy, and their lower end was actually much better looking than Amazon’s, so I settled for a £10 model. And for £3.95, they allow you to select a 3 hours delivery window — If I did that right when I realize the delivery would have been missed, Argos would have delivered the same day, instead I had to settle for the following day, Wednesday, between 7am and 10am. Indeed the day after, at at 7.20am, I was the happy owner of a cheap, simple garbage bin.

This is not the first time that, on Amazon’s failure, I redirected on Argos. And after this adventure, I think they’ll just be my first and default destination for anything that I want delivered at home (which is usually bulky stuff too uncomfortable to bring across London on the Piccadilly). The last time, it was a clothes iron and board, that somehow Amazon refused to do any nominated day delivery for. Argos was happy to deliver them on a Saturday morning intead. And practically speaking, a 7am-10am delivery weekday window means I can receive at any day, before heading to the office.

I wish that it all ended there, though.

On the same Wednesday that I received the Argos delivery, while at work, the Amazon app on my phone decided to notify me that the bin (the one that I asked to cancel the delivery of), was going to be delivered that day. I once again turned to Twitter where Amazon informed me that the request for cancellation might not have been reflected yet, and that they will not deliver if it was requested not to.

Except that at around 6pm, while I was commuting home, I also received another notification to tell me that the package was delivered. Checking this, it reported the package was delivered “to the resident” — except that my building requires a fob to access, and I was nowhere near home to let them in. So either they left it in the corridor (assuming someone else opened them the main door) or they left it outside altogether (in which case, it would be unlikely for it to stay around until I made it home).

Since the Amazon Android app allows you to contact them via chat, I did so, selecting the order with the bins, explain the situation, and explicitly talking about the nominated day delivery failure. At which point they confirm they would prepare a return request, and that they would organize for pick up. I also note with them that it’s a 40 litres bin, which makes the box very big and not something I’d bring to the post office myself. I also made sure to point out with them that, as I would not have an idea where they manage to leave the box without me, I would just leave it there, and let them pick it up the same way they left them. They confirmed all of this is okay, and after greetings disconnected the chat.

A few minutes later I get an email confirming the return request for… an unrelated set of bamboo spoons that arrived the same day. Not the one I was talking about, which would have been clear from both the bulk of the object we have been talking about, the delivery type, and the delivery address. And of course the price of the spoons was significantly lower than the bin. Sigh.

Another round of chat with Amazon, and they issued the return for the right item. They also told me not to worry about the pick up, and that I could keep the bin… which I don’t need anymore and would take a lot of space. I asked explicitly for a pick up anyway, and they agreed to organize it with Hermes. It was not until I got home and checked the email they sent me, that they expected me to print the return label — but I have no printer at home.

At least expecting Hermes to contact me, if anything to complain that they can’t access the building, I left the box in the hallway where they left it for the day after. Two days later, no pick up, no note, and no call later, I checked the status of the return to find out that they marked it as “completed”. While leaving the box with me. And I now have a fancy bin in the master bathroom, which is open to a good home in West London if someone were to want to deal with it (but probably not worth doing).

I’ll add a few more words about this later on, as Amazon in particular seems to be going the wrong way, for me at least.

How Flattr grew back for me

I wrote about flattr more than a couple of times in the past. In particular, I’ve complained about the fact that its system made it difficult for people not take their money out, as they take a continuous 10% stream out of each people’s revenue monthly. Also, the revenue out of Flattr at least for me has been, for a while, just a notch above that of Google’s AdSense, which does not require direct interaction from users to begin with.

But one of the things they stared this year made it possible to increase significantly (well depending on your habits) the amount of money that runs in the system. Socialvest is a very neat service that uses the various affiliate systems to gather you funds that you can then employ to donate straight to a non-profit (including Flattr itself!) and if you link it with your Flattr account, you’ll also see that money transferred to your Flattr funds, which you can then use to flattr others.

For the user it’s extremely simple actually: you install a browser extension, and then go around doing your online shopping as usual. Some websites will show up a ribbon telling you that you can use Socialvest with them, in which case the extension injects the needed affiliate code into the order forms so that you get your “rebate”. Considering that Amazon has a 4% affiliate fee, it’s extremely interesting, as I do most of my shopping on Amazon (ThinkGeek also should be supported but when I tried, it seemed like it didn’t work as intended, unfortunately). The nicest part is that it seems to work fine with gift cards as well.

Using SocialVest hasn’t really changed my spending habits — although it did change my preference in where to buy TV series and music, from Apple’s iTunes Store to Amazon’s stores. This was helped by me getting a Kindle Fire and Amazon releasing an Instant Video app for iPad. And now from the fact that Amazon launched the MP3 Store in Italy as well. Furthermore it seems like the J-Pop catalogue in Amazon is quite bigger than Apple’s, and that’s good news for me.

So go on, if you’re using Flattr, and go to Socialvest to have more funds to flattr the content you care about. There’s nothing to lose in my opinion.