What I've Noticed During a Week of Wandering Around London

©. K Martinko

It is interesting to see which environmental actions are prioritized in foreign cities.

I have spent the past week in London, England. The official reason for my trip was to attend the Lush Prize awards ceremony, but now I'm exploring the city for several days on my own. I spend my time writing in the morning, walking the streets in the afternoon, and meeting friends in the evening. It's a good, albeit temporary, interlude in my usually house-bound family life.

Because I live in a very small town in rural Ontario, it's always fun to spend time in a large city. Life is exceedingly different in a city, especially a European one; and with the environmentally-conscious lens through which I tend to view everything, it has been interesting to see what London is doing well on the planet-protection front, and what things have impressed me less. (These observations are not in-depth, but merely casual.)

London appears to have a bipolar relationship with plastic. Some bars and restaurants are progressive, with signs reading "This is a no-straw establishment!" And yet, I discovered that these same places hand out disposable plastic cups into which patrons are expected to pour their unfinished drinks while meandering down the street to the next bar. (Can you tell how I spent my Friday night?)

Borough Market

© K Martinko

Poking around Borough Market, where there's a sign at the entrance urging people not to use plastic water bottles and try the fountain instead, I noticed that food vendors serve their delicious concoctions in non-plastic containers. My paella came in a wooden bowl with a compostable plastic spoon (that was a disappointment, even if it's compostable). Others were eating pad thai out of paper boxes and sandwiches in paper wraps. There was no foam packaging in sight in the communal eating area, which I thought was great.

But then I went into Sainsbury's, a grocery store near my hotel, later that day, and was horrified by the produce section. This is what I saw:

plastic-wrapped veggies

© K Martinko -- Plastic-wrapped vegetables and fruit at Sainsbury's in London

This is why I've been subsisting on clementines for the past three days, as they're the only fruit that does not come shrouded in plastic. I've never seen anything like this in Canada, except for the occasional box of fancy imported heirloom tomatoes or prepared salad greens.

Even the Fairtrade bananas are wrapped! It's terribly unfair that ethical shoppers must choose between human or environmental exploitation, never avoiding both.

plastic-wrapped bananas

© K Martinko -- Bananas at Sainsbury's: Choose between human or environmental exploitation!

That being said, there is an impressive array of vegan and vegetarian food options in this city. While I am not vegan myself, several of the other writers on the media team covering the Lush Prize were, so we ate at a number of fabulous places.

Mildred's London

© K Martinko -- The media crew in front of Mildred's in London

Mildred's is a classic, of course, and we enjoyed a hearty vegan brunch at high-end Mexican chain Wahaca (which has a separate vegan menu). Another memorable meal was a six-course vegan tasting menu at an adorable pop-up restaurant called Pride Kitchen in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden. (Go to Neal's Yard if you're in London. It's exquisite.) We also dined at Farmacy, a funky health food spot in west London that TimeOut described as what Jay Gatsby's new home would look like "if he had fled West Egg for the beaches of Bali." Whether it's fine dining or fast food, this is a seriously vegan-friendly city.

I cannot talk about London without mentioning transit, of course. I am in love with the tube. The subway system here is easy to navigate and the trains run frequently. My only complaint is that, when paying fares with cash, it is extremely expensive. A one-way ride from Southbank to Notting Hill cost me £4.90, which is a horrifying CDN$8 (US$6.40). I quickly got my hands on an Oyster card, which is a smartcard charged with credit that costs 50 percent less per trip.


© K Martinko -- Street view near Piccadilly Circus

But even better than the tube is walking. London is glorious for walking -- except when I need to cross a street, at which point I freeze because the left-side driving still confuses me and I feel like I'm going to die at any moment. The vehicles drive fast and there are a lot of them. Nor is jay-walking illegal, so people dash across streets constantly. It's a bit nerve-wracking, but when I'm on a sidewalk, all is well.

All in all, I get the sense that, in ways such as transit and veganism, London is further ahead than Toronto when it comes to environmental awareness; but in other categories, such as the dreadful plastic packaging in grocery stores, it lags behind. I suppose one must take the bad with the good.

I still love this city and would happily live here, should the opportunity ever arise. In the meantime, I'll squeeze as much juice out of my remaining days as possible. More stories to come!