When You Also Just Spontaneously Moved to a Foreign Country, and other Highly Specific Situations You May or May Not Relate to…
Cass Hebron explains how sustainability can change as you graduate and how to adapt to a sustainable life in a new place. This article offers some solutions to problems she faced trying to live sustainably after leaving university.
So perhaps you don’t relate to the title. It was, obviously, a little specific to one person (me). However even if you didn’t spontaneously accept a job offer in Belgium to begin one week after the end of third-year exams and end up moving last-minute to a foreign country you previously knew about 2 facts about, there are other things that might hit closer to home.
Graduating and leaving your uni town for your hometown, or perhaps already the Great Unknown: London, Manchester, or some other major city to start your Insta-perfect early-twenties career. (Or at least that’s what the internet has led me to believe but personally my early twenties are involving a lot more budgeting and administrative paperwork and a lot fewer ‘brunch with the gals’ in upmarket indie joints). Adjusting to a new living situation, the end of the familiar uni routine and literally everybody’s newfound fixation on asking how the job-hunt is going and what your ‘plans’ are when you haven’t planned further than your next scheduled Netflix binge.
It’s a lot to get used to, and as with many big changes in life, it’s easy to let things fall by the wayside like sustainability and keeping up the eco-friendly habits you developed at uni. It was easy to save money and be sustainable when I knew what cafes offered a discount if you brought your own mug, and where all the free water taps are on campus, and when I knew what supermarkets stocked what items without plastic packaging or had the greatest discounts at the end of the day.
Then – in my case – came Belgium. My overly optimistic eco-warrior self trotted out of the Eurostar ready to embrace sustainable Brussels. Except I couldn’t understand the recycling poster. Tap water wasn’t free. Market sellers unexpectedly shoved the fruit and veg in flimsy plastic bags before handing it back to me. It was frustrating, confusing and to be honest – exhausting to have to second-guess every move when I was also, you know, adjusting to a new country and a new job.
One thing was clear: I needed to rethink my strategy. When in Belgium, your English eco-friendly tips aren’t going to cut it. Or more broadly: sustainability can look different in different places and that’s OK.
Brussels doesn’t have such good recycling but it does have a huge network of ‘bio’ shops featuring a wide array of zero-waste dispensers that allow you to bring your own container, plus Fair Trade and ‘bio’ sections in the supermarket. It doesn’t have an active community formy beloved favourite app Olio, but Too Good to Go is spreading like a pandemic.
I joined a random selection of Facebook groups for people in Brussels interested in veganism and zero-waste and made a note of the places they mentioned often. I kept an eye on environment-focused events in the centre and got to recognise some of the brands that kept appearing. I (eventually) located the vegetarian and vegan section of the local supermarkets and learnt enough French to ask shopkeepers to skip the plastic bags.
Pro tip: take a look at all the scattered posters and business cards that are often left inside eco or indie cafes and shops, they can be a good source of information for the things going on in your area.
If you’ve moved out of your uni town into your hometown, you may often be moving to a smaller town or village where the 21st century often hasn’t quite caught up and you still need to go up a hill to get one bar of phone signal (Devon I’m looking at you). So the chances of finding a cute vegan coffee shop or trendy upcycled shipping container vintage clothes shop are pretty much, well, zero. But rethink what sustainability looks like here: countryside areas have much greater access to cheap locally-sourced ingredients, as well as being hubs of organic farming, energy industries – have you seen how many wind farms are appearing across the fields? – and wildlife conservation. A huge part of being sustainable, and of saving money, is returning to traditional attitudes towards food, shopping and waste: making use of what you have and finding value in everything – because if you don’t it’s a half hour drive to Tesco anyway.
So reframe your goals, and secondly: be persistent, but don’t punish yourself for mistakes. Whether you’re moving to a shiny new city or the deepest valleys of Herefordshire, you will order a coffee and find it unexpectedly delivered in a disposable coffee cup, you will accidentally rack up more miles in the car than you expected, or accidentally let fruit in the fridge go bad. None of us are doing sustainability perfectly, and when you’ve just graduated it can feel like everybody is placing pressure on every aspect of your life.
So don’t bother feeling guilty, it’s not useful. Feel motivated instead, and be persistent. Stay curious about the world around you – yes, the world beyond your infinite scrolling news feed – and you’ll find there’s interesting things to get involved with everywhere.
About the author: Cass Hebron is the founder of Wild Magazine and a recent graduate of BA English Language and Linguistics at the University of York.