Food, Waste and Transportation in London

Over Spring Break, I had the opportunity to travel to London to visit my significant other who is studying abroad there. I traveled to London at 2 years old—long enough ago that I had no memory of it. Throughout nearly everything I did while there, I found myself comparing and contrasting London and United States cities.

I reflected most on three main aspects of life in these cities: food, waste and transportation.

A waste bin at University College London

When I travel, I like to visit grocery stores, restaurants and street food vendors to get a decent understanding of how people eat. Cuisine differences aside, I gathered a few observations that illuminate differences between U.K. and U.S. cities. The produce I purchased often came from France or Italy, traveling as far as around 1,200 miles compared to the over 2,700 miles from California’s Central Valley (a large producer of produce for the United States). Though the impacts of food miles are contested in academic literature, the increase of inputs is significant when doubling food miles. On top of this, the fruit tasted fresher, especially when bought from smaller markets and stands. On the other hand, though not strictly food, water fountains were hard to come by and people seemed to use even more single-use water bottles. A quick Google search reveals that this phenomenon holds real contention, with a British official cited for saying, “they’re just not very British, are they?” when referring to water fountains. Fortunately though, my observation comes at a time of change, as London has plans to add many public water fountains around the city.

Hopefully the water fountain change will reduce the city’s waste—an area that I also noticed many differences. First off, Londoners widely use compost, whether in public areas, schools or homes. Many waste areas included compost sections as well as areas to dump liquid, allowing for proper recycling. Another noticeable aspect of waste in London was labelling and signage. Few bins were explicitly labelled as “trash,” “recycling” and “compost” like they are here, but rather “food,” “plastic and cans,” etc. with further description of what belongs where. This seems to assist in better, more efficient waste disposal, hopefully causing a reduction in landfill waste!

Finally, though the streets still felt congested like many American cities, I can’t imagine what it’d be like without the Tube. The Tube—or the underground rail of Transport for London—is the best public transit system I’ve seen. The trains come less than 5 minutes apart, the system’s clean and dependable, and the routes are extremely comprehensive. One rush hour, I waited 4 trains before I could get on due to the high volume. The Tube, I hope, allows the city to lower its footprint by reducing the cars on the streets. Transport for London is constantly making improvements to the Tube; since 2014, you’ve been able to pay with contactless pay (like ApplePay) without obtaining an Oyster Card (the transit pass). If they switch out the cloth seats for plastic ones, I’d be hard-pressed to find a flaw!

Between the food, waste and transit (along with so much else), I became enamored by London! I highly recommend it for any environmentalist or travel enthusiast able to take the trip (especially if you consider buying carbon offsets for your flight!)