The United Kingdom Is Killing It On Sustainability

Image of British Union Jack flags

Key Takeaways:

  • In 2022, the United Kingdom ranked 11th in global sustainability from the Sustainable Development Report, while the U.S. ranked 41st.
  • No paper towels in the loo, compostable straws, coffee cups/lids, and other compostable items were just a few of the ways Brits are reducing waste in the landfills.
  • Lack of A/C and low emissions zones in major cities keep energy usage down and cut-back on pollution from the worst-offending vehicles.

Paul and I just got back from the most amazing trip to the United Kingdom for a much-needed mental break. Not only was it historic due to the late Queen Elizabeth II’s passing and all the pomp and circumstance that came along with it, but it was also incredibly eye-opening to see how well the U.K. is doing in terms of sustainability efforts. I didn’t really set out to look for all the ways that they were doing a stand-up job, but after a few days in-country these really started to emerge. In 2022, the U.K. ranked 11th in global sustainability from the Sustainable Development Report, while the U.S. ranked 41st. (A big congrats to Finland for top billing!)

The following are just some of the things we noticed on our trip without really even looking – I’m sure there are many more and loads of plans in place to do even better in future decades.

Paper towels vs. air dryers in the loo

One of the first things that we noticed was the absence of paper towels in the bathrooms in favor of air dryers. I would say that 95% percent of establishments were equipped with air dryers. Obviously air dryers use fewer resources than paper towels, since paper towels are a consumable item that need to be produced and transported to businesses and then eventually end up in landfills. A 2017 report finds that the newer jet air dryers like those made by Dyson and XLerator are the most eco-friendly when comparing them to the older (slower) dryers and paper towels. The older dryers require more time and, thus, more energy to get your hands completely dry so might be pretty comparable to energy consumption than paper towels. 

Beverage habits

Paul and I may have done a considerable amount of adult-beverage partaking, but it’s okay because it was all good for the environment! In nearly every bar we went to, our drinks were served either with paper straws or strawless. One establishment used what looked to be a plastic straw but it was likely a compostable one. On top of that, I can’t recall receiving any beverage in single-use plastic cups – only reusable glass or plastic. (Now, the airlines are another story…)

Compostable stuff

In addition to seeing improvements like paper straws, I also noticed that many of our to-go coffee cups and lids were also compostable. However, I am unsure as to how these items get processed if thrown into the general waste bin. I saw lots of signs for the general waste that also included compostable materials, but here in the States any compostable item that gets thrown into the trash headed for the landfill will not actually break down, since it requires oxygen for that process to happen.Most items in the landfill just sort of sit there in a an oxygen-less state refusing to break down. 

We stayed in an Airbnb in Edinburgh and outside the apartment complex, the city provided compost bins for the residents. I thought that was super cool! I hope that trend continues throughout other cities in the U.K. 

We also went into a small gift shop to browse and I randomly picked up an advent calendar (you know, for nostalgia’s sake. My mom used to get us the ones that had chocolate in them!) I noticed that the calendar was wrapped in a compostable plastic film! Again, might just be a one off, but it’s so heartening to see that some businesses are caring enough to go the extra mile and incur the extra cost of compostable packaging. We’re in good company! I did also see another brand of shampoo and conditioner bars at this same gift shop, as well!

No air-con

Another way that the U.K. and Europe, in general, are more energy-conscious is their lack of air-conditioning, or air-con, as they call it across the pond. In fact, many of the buildings are built so that they are more energy-efficient, keeping them warmer in winter and cooler in summer without an external HVAC system. While we were there, it was a bit chilly at night, but we never once needed to turn on the heat. While this is great for sustainability, I do wonder what the implications of this lack of air-con in relation to climate change and how people will fare with rising global temps.

Low emissions zones

Many cities across the U.K.have enacted what are known as Low Emission Zones, which are sections within cities that fine heavy-polluting diesel vehicles if they drive in those sections. We saw these specifically in London, Edinburgh, and Bath and according to a government website, 11 more cities are planning to roll-out these zones by the end of 2022.

Our rental car and most other cars on the road were also equipped with automatic start-stop technology where a car will automatically shut off when idling (like at a stop light). We’ve noticed this trend the few other times we’ve been to Europe, but it’s hard to differentiate if Europeans tend to drive newer cars with this technology versus the U.S., or if we just noticed it more because our rental cars tended to be new models. Either way, this is good news! A 2014 report found that vehicles with start-stop technology had improved fuel economy of up to seven percent over their counterparts with the technology turned off. A quick google search also tells me that more and more newer vehicles in the U.S. are also being manufactured with this game-changing technology. Keep the good work coming!