10 Things the US Should Import from the UK

I’m back from an idyllic holiday in the UK (yes, I blew my carbon footprint for the year) in which Kevin and I meandered around the River Wear eating wild blackberries, pondered sheep genetics and cloud formation as our train flew past verdant pastureland, read a whole lot of Alexander McCall Smith, gathered sea glass from an almost deserted northern beach, went on ghost walks with self-deprecating former thespians, and did, as they say, a whole lot of nothing. Good holiday.

I’ve spent almost two years of my life in England at this point, and I feel a lot of affection for this country that I don’t belong to. On this last trip, I was surprised to see how much it’s changed to become more sustainable and socially responsible. The challenges it faces are different, and in some ways easier, than the ones a country as big as the US faces. But I think its example is well worth aspiring to — especially because all of these green things are mainstream in a way they still aren’t in the US. Here are some of my favorites.

  1. All outlets — including the ones in Durham Castle — are equipped with switches. No more plugging and unplugging: flip a switch, and poof! No more phantom electricity drain.
  2. Lots of pride in locally grown, British food. At the supermarket, produce from Britain is clearly marked (and if you missed the text, the bins are lined with the Brittanica flag), and at various not particularly green eateries, we were offered local yogurt, free range local eggs, and even chips made with 100% British potatoes. Local free range beef and sausage, too, though we didn’t eat them. By the way, free range eggs are the norm rather than the exception in the UK: Even McDonald’s uses freerange eggs (and beef) in the UK.
  3. Lots of concern over fairtrade. The UK still imports a lot of food — not only because it doesn’t produce enough food to feed its entire population, but also because you can’t grow tea, coffee, cacao, grapes, or bananas in its climate — but I’m amazed at the emphasis it places on fair trade. Major companies have hopped on board, so you can get 50% fair trade (working on 100%) tea from PG Tips at the train station, fair trade certified Kit Kats, fair trade bananas from a very small city centre Tesco Express (average non-green grocery store), and so on. In the UK, fair trade is actually pretty mainstream.
  4. Comprehensive public transportation. Kevin and I are terrified to drive in the UK, so we didn’t even look into renting a car. Instead, we took trains and buses and did a whole lot of walking. Although it can’t get you everywhere, public transportation covers most of the bases and gets you close enough to your destination so you can walk the rest. It’s not particularly cheap, mind you — our second biggest expense after lodging was train fare — but the fact that we travelled all over the country on public transportation is still pretty impressive. Another bonus: all that walking kept off the weight from our rather less admirable diets while there. (Note to self: chips are not supposed to be a dinner entree.) 
  5. Pop-up toilet paper dispensers. This is genius. Kind of like those disinfecting wipes you no longer use (right?), exactly one sheet pops up and tears off at a time. The sheet is a fairly generous size, about 1.5 sheets of toilet paper, and more than enough for most, er, jobs. And the single sheet dispenser discourages mindless waste, which is always good.
  6. No plastic bags unless you ask for them. No weird looks if you want to carry out your groceries without one, no weird looks if you have a bright red reusable with a funny print on it.
  7. Smaller portion sizes. Americans waste a whole lot of food just because serving sizes are gigantic (and face it, some things really don’t taste good as leftovers). Restaurants in England serve smaller meals that are a better reflection of what the average person can finish in one sitting.
  8. A culture of line drying. Kevin and I passed almost as many clotheslines as we did sheep on our many train journeys, and from previous conversations with flatmates and such, I learned that most households in the UK do not have dryers. And if a country as damp as England can get its clothes dry without a dryer, those of us in California have no excuses whatsoever.
  9. Building reusing. Castle Durham, where we stayed part of the time, is a Norman castle started in the 11th century that is still a fully functional castle that serves as dormitory housing for University College students. It’s been cabled for electricity, heating, and now internet. 15-30% of what’s in our landfills is actually construction materials, so why not reuse and maintain old buildings rather than knock them down and build ugly new ones?
  10. FSC certified books and packaging. I was surprised to the Forest Stewardship Council logo on the back of a book at Waterstone’s. But it’s such a good idea. There is no excuse not to use recycled paper wherever we can. After all, who really needs a mass market paperback made of virgin forest?

2 responses to this post.

  1. Oh My, I feel proud to be British!!

    All these things I complain about (crap public transport, waaaaay too many plastic carrier bags given out and people using their dryers and getting huge portions of food everywhere) are obviously not that bad. Who knew! And thanks for the perspective check.

    Anyway, do me a favour – if you blow your carbon footprint again on a trip to my green and pleasant land; let me know and we’ll meet up! I think we could spend hours talking about all sorts of nonsense…


    • Hello Mrs Green!
      The same things you complain about could be applied to the US tenfold. I was in the UK 2003-4 and 2007-8 for study abroad and postgrad, and even in the two years that passed between it and my most recent visit, the UK seems to have made huge strides. (OK, part of that might be that I’ve also become more eco-conscious.) The US needs to hurry up and adapt already.

      I will certainly let you know if I am in the UK again. I think it is probably inevitable, though perhaps not for some years. I would love to meet up and talk bread, cats, and all things environmental. 🙂


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