When you can’t let a beloved pet go

Our dog died a year ago and his ashes are still sitting on the mantelpiece in a cardboard container.

At the vets we were offered a choice of decorative urns but turned them down as we wanted to scatter his ashes in his favourite park.  My friend’s parents have had a wooden urn containing their dog Sandy’s ashes on their mantelpiece since 1978. But no, we wouldn’t be doing that.

After receiving the ashes, we decided to wait until Easter to return to Oakwell Park with him one last time.

Easter came. ‘When are we going to take Rocky to Oakwell?’ I asked my husband. He took so long to reply I thought he hadn’t heard me. But then he said quietly, ‘I can’t let him go.’ 

It’s strange. We know the cardboard box is not ‘him’.  It’s not rational, it’s not sensible, there’s not a single intelligent reason for his ashes to remain on the mantelpiece in a green and purple cardboard cylinder – and yet remain they do. Along with his photo, his pawprint, a tiny bottle with some of his golden fur and a large portrait display my son bought us saying, No Longer By My Side But Forever In My Heart.

What’s normal?

Last week a friend contemplated the mantelpiece shrine and asked if we had thought of adding Rocky’s ashes to the compost bin.

His comment made me wonder what other people do. What’s normal in these circumstances?

An internet search showed that, as you might expect, many people want to return their pet to nature by placing their ashes in the garden where they roamed and played. But cremation ashes contain high levels of calcium and increase the pH level in the soil so they should be mixed with manure, compost, organic nitrogen fertiliser or coffee grounds.

Alternatively, there are biodegradable urns for ashes that gradually decompose, and biodegradable tree urns made from natural plant fibres that enable you to grow a tree in memory of your pet.

I came across discussions on the ethics of burying a pet in the garden, with stories of people being horrified to discover animal skeletons while gardening. Some think you should have to disclose if you have buried a pet on a property before selling it.  There’s also the matter of leaving behind your pet’s burial site if you move house.

In some countries it’s illegal to bury pets in your garden, and there are environmental concerns about burying a pet that’s been put to sleep with euthanasia solution.

Then I came across a story about two vets from Columbia, where it’s illegal to bury pets, who wanted to come up with a more environmentally-friendly way of disposing of a pet’s body than burial or cremation. With cremation 96 per cent of the body is released into the atmosphere as pollution.

Their solution was to create organic compost from the animal’s body, inspired by the natural way that a body decomposes after death. Owners can then have this compost returned to them (after about 60 days) in a pot with a plant of their choosing. 

From pet to plant

I struggled to find examples of pet ashes being added to a garden compost bin but I don’t feel particularly motivated to find out more.  I feel my beloved dog is not a plant or a tree but then he’s not a cardboard box either. What he is to me is a cocky little character who races into the room at cartoon-speed, head tilted to one side, with a wild, dramatic stare that says ‘Mum, what the heck are you doing sitting comfortably when you should be getting my tea ready!’ Or who ostentatiously takes on the task of guarding our territory from a squirrel invasion, looking round self-importantly every now and again to check we’re impressed by his skills.

But that’s never going to happen again.

To think I never wanted a dog. For years my husband and sons had argued for one and I always said no. I had never had pets growing up. But two things happened to change my mind. The first was a chance meeting in a park with an adorable bundle of golden fluff that came running up to my eight-year-old son. My son was captivated as the bundle of fluff, a Norfolk Terrier called Rosie, nestled in his arms.  Walking away, I said the fateful words: ‘I could have taken that dog home with us.’

As soon as we got home my husband was straight on the internet looking up Norfolk Terriers.

A boy and his dog

But I still might have said no, if it weren’t for a psychology book I read that said having a pet in childhood leads to psychological resilience in adulthood. I could see the sense in that – if you have to deal with the nitty gritty of life early on it helps prepare you for what we all have to face later.  Life isn’t clean, calm and controllable; having a dog shows you that. It forces you to deal with poo, wee, blood, vomit, sacrifice, suffering, death – like a cross between an A and E department and a Russian novel.

 I liked the idea of our sons developing psychological resilience and I liked that Norfolk Terrier.

 So we got a dog. The night before we were due to go pick up our Norfolk puppy from a farm near York, I sat surveying the living room. Our youngest was eight; we had passed the stage of domestic chaos and our house was on the way back to resembling an adult-friendly refuge. And we were about to blow all that. I looked fondly at the stain-free carpet. In 24 hours, I would have a living creature crawling about on that carpet and it would be here for years and years and there’d be no going back. I felt afraid. What on earth had I agreed to?

You know where this is going.

Before long the dog wasn’t just a ‘dog’ anymore, it was ‘Rocky’ and Rocky took over our lives. At first he was anxious around other dogs until puppy training classes,  dog trainer sessions and a dozen books helped us to help him.

Keeping calm

He had one unhappy experience at the vets and for the next few visits was very stressed, but I realised that I was able to soothe him with my own reaction. If I kept completely calm, reassuring him in a cheerful voice, he would fix his eyes on mine and be guided by me. He would remain calm even though he wasn’t happy. I realised to my astonishment that he trusted me more than he trusted his own sensations. It was as if he thought, If Mum says this is ok, it must be.

 It took me by complete surprise that I, who had never had a pet in childhood, could form a bond with an animal; that this animal could like me and want to be with me and place all his trust in me. I was completely blindsided by this love, unconditional and often undeserved. I understood why animal lovers often say their pet rescued them rather than the other way round.  

So it proved during the pandemic, when this funny little furball was our tower of strength. By day, we took him for long walks round Oakwell Park, standing to one side to give other dog walkers and joggers two metres’ space. By night we watched the daily updates on TV. Rising panic was held in check thanks to having a yawning dog sprawled across my lap, sighing contentedly as I stroked his tummy.

 He hasn’t a clue what’s going on, I thought. He is just here in the moment enjoying a tummy rub. I resolved to try to Be More Dog. What use to anyone was my personal panic?

I try to blank out the day I took Rocky to the vet about a limp, only to find out it was lymphoma. And the day a few months later when for the first time he refused all food and the vet said, I think it might be time….

The next 24 hours were like nothing we could have imagined. The son who was eight when we got Rocky, and who named him after the Rocky films, got the next train home from Newcastle where he was at university.

A man and his dog

I’ll always be grateful that lockdown was over, so the vet and her nurse could come to the house.

And I’ll always be grateful that I was able to do one last thing for Rocky. The vet explained that she needed the nurse to hold Rocky very still as the line was inserted into his leg. Then he would be able to come on to my knee. But inserting the line could make a dog become very agitated and upset and she might need us to leave the room if he did.

I will never know how I did it, but somehow I was able to hold Rocky’s gaze and keep my voice calm and reassuring, just as I had learned at the vets years earlier, telling him what a good boy he was, what a good boy he had always been. I never stopped repeating those words. He was afraid but his eyes never left mine for a second and he remained still as the line was put in. If Mum says it’s ok, it must be.

A dog is a child that never grows up. Your four-year-old child wants nothing more than to be with you and shower you with affection. Your 14-year-old, not so much. Your dog always thinks you’re great, even when you can’t think of a single good thing about yourself.

So, to go back to my friend’s question. No, we haven’t considered adding Rocky’s ashes to the Green Johanna.  We know that this would be the circle of life and he’d be going back to feed the soil and create new life and all that.

 I really don’t know what we will end up doing. But, right now, as my husband said, we just can’t let him go.


Saving the world from squirrels – Rocky

The Composter’s Halloween Plea

Remember, remember on the 1st of November,

Halloween brought fun and mirth,

But don’t let that pumpkin

rot in any old bin

When it could nourish the earth.


Don’t bin that pumpkin –

It’s better to get a Johanna!


Want to know something really scary?

This November an estimated 15 million Halloween pumpkins will end up in landfill in the UK.

The vast majority will not even have been used for food first. 

Don’t let your pumpkin lantern be one of those that contribute to greenhouse gases – compost it and feed the earth instead.

A Halloween treat for the planet

A job for the grown-ups:

To compost your used pumpkin, cut the skin into pieces (the cutters in Halloween lantern carving sets can be useful for this job).

A job for the children:

Add the pieces of pumpkin waste to a composter and stir in well together with woody garden waste, autumn leaves or scrunched paper and torn cardboard.

 Job done – that’s one happy ending for Halloween! 

Going back to nourish the earth

Zero Waste Pumpkin Soup – tried and tested

Stacks of pumpkins

Pumpkin is absolutely Soup of the Month for October – no prizes for guessing why.

This recipe by our good friend Chef Dan at Kitche, the food waste fighting app, has been tried and tested by us and found to be totally delicious.

It uses the whole pumpkin – yes, even that mega-tough skin, which adds taste and texture.

 The seeds can also be roasted and added as a finishing touch. Unfortunately, I never got to try this part of the recipe because in our house anything that is not nailed down gets thrown in the Green Johanna by my husband. That’s what happened to my pumpkin seeds when my back was turned. Never mind, it gives me an excuse to make another batch of this delicious autumn warming soup.

Serves – 4

Time – 1 hr 30 mins


1 medium large pumpkin

3 large onions

3-4 garlic cloves,

Olive oil

1 litre vegetable stock

1 can coconut milk (optional)

Sprig of rosemary

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper


1. Wash, cut in half and gut your pumpkin, making sure to separate the flesh and seeds. (You may want to slap a sign on the seeds saying DO NOT COMPOST).

2. Crush garlic and finely chop the onions and add them to the pan, add oil and simmer until slightly golden.

3. Chop remaining pumpkin into large cubes and add them to a large pan with the pulp.

4. Finely chop your rosemary and add to the pan with your bay leaves, which you can leave whole.

5. Add your veg stock, making sure the ingredients are covered.

6. Add coconut milk if using.

7. Put on lid and let the pan come to the boil. Once bubbling, turn the heat down so the soup is simmering. Sort out the seeds while waiting.

8. The soup will take at least an hour to cook. Make sure the pumpkin skin is soft (this can take a little longer depending on the type of pumpkin).

9. Once it is ready, remember to take out the bay leaves and add salt and pepper to taste. Use a hand blender to make the soup smooth and creamy. Add water if required until it is your desired consistency. Can be stored in the fridge or freezer.

What to do with your pumpkin seeds?

The seeds make a great garnish. Lay them out on a baking tray and lightly salt them. They only take 5 – 10 minutes and burn easily. If you don’t want the seeds on soup, save them till spring and plant them in your garden.


 I also like this idea for pumpkin seeds from the organic online store Abel and Cole:

Give seeds a rinse, then toss in a little olive oil, salt and paprika and fry them for 5 minutes until golden brown – a great snack to serve at Halloween parties.


Food waste recycling – residents are doing it for themselves

Mention the term ‘food waste collection’ to millions of people in England and chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare.

That’s because their local councils have not yet started operating separate food waste collections; currently only around 50% of English local authorities do so. But change is coming. Before long, those residents will be joining the rest of the country in separating out food waste from residual waste. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already made the change.

It’s a revolution in waste disposal but also in the daily routines of millions of people – and the planet will reap the benefits. 

According to WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) national kerbside food waste collections will mean a reduction in greenhouse gases of 1.25 million tonnes per year.  In compliance with the Environment Act, by 2030 no food waste will be sent to landfill in the UK.

Make a difference

Those local authorities that have already made the change have succeeded in getting a vital  message across to their residents – food waste recycling really does make a difference. Once you know that food waste in landfill releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, it’s hard to just chuck your apple core in any old bin.

Turning food waste into compost is the single fastest and easiest thing people can do to combat climate change.  So it makes sense that many people want to bring about this incredible transformation themselves, by taking charge of their own food and garden waste and turning it into compost for their garden, allotment or community project.

At Great Green Systems we understand the many varied rewards that come from composting, both for the individual and for their local council. For almost 20 years we’ve been working in partnership with local authorities around the UK, running schemes offering discounted food waste composters to those residents who want to recycle their food waste at source, right in their own gardens.

 Such schemes typically divert an estimated 250kg per family per year from landfill or treatment centres.

In 2020 Cumbria County Council estimated that over five years their scheme offering residents subsidised food waste composters (Green Johannas and Green Cones) had succeeded in diverting more than 5,000 tonnes of food waste from landfill, an average of 87 tonnes per month.

Produce compost

Green Johannas tend to be chosen by people who want to recycle garden waste as well as food waste, and to also produce their own compost. Green Cones accept only food waste and do not produce compost but a soil conditioner that nourishes the soil in which they are embedded.  Because Green Cones require no stirring or turning, they are often chosen by people who want the simplest possible way of recycling food waste.

Judith Bradshaw, waste prevention officer for Cumbria County Council, says:

‘Food waste digesters are a great way to reduce household waste in the county and offer an easy way for the householder to treat their food waste at home. The scheme has been very well received around the county.

‘I purchased a Green Cone to use alongside my existing composter which already works really well. I now have the means to treat all of my food waste, both cooked and uncooked at home, as the two bins complement each other perfectly.’

Research by WRAP shows that the benefits derived from composting go beyond improved food waste disposal.  When householders take responsibility for their own food and garden waste, a positive attitude to recycling in general usually follows, meaning that other recycling rates also improve.  As people become aware of how much food they throw away, they also tend to reduce the amount of waste they produce.

Boosting soil health

In addition, an increased awareness of the role that compost plays in sucking carbon out of the atmosphere (cooling the climate) and sinking it back into the earth (boosting soil health), can also mean that people feel they are doing their bit in the fight against the climate crisis.

At Great Green Systems we know that every local authority region faces very different challenges with regard to waste disposal. Our partnerships have included local authorities from the length and breadth of the country, from the Scilly Isles to the Orkneys. The geographical areas covered by our partner local authorities are diverse, from large land areas with spread-out populations to urban areas with multi-occupancy residences.

It’s not only homeowners with gardens who benefit from food waste composting. We have seen amazing results with small-scale community composting schemes in housing association complexes.

When 33 Green Johannas were installed across eight flats sites across East and West Sussex and Surrey (run by Housing 21 and Amicus Housing), the communal gardens were not the only things that blossomed. Residents and staff reported that personal well-being and community spirit also flourished. The projects helped to keep people mentally alert and physically active, through taking waste out to the Johannas, crunching up cardboard containers etc. It gave neighbours an added reason to chat to each other, acting as a conversational ice-breaker, not to mention encouraging them to grow their own flowers and food using the free, organic compost they had created.

Environmental superpowers

Composting appeals to people for different reasons. For some it’s because they’re enthusiastic gardeners and see making their own free, organic compost as a no-brainer. Others are converted to composting when they learn about its incredible environmental superpowers.

For instance, compost:

  • boosts soil quality
  • prevents soil erosion
  • improves soil drainage
  • absorbs water (slowly releasing it to grass and plants)
  • improves plant productivity and quality
  • helps soil to capture carbon from the air and pull it back into the ground.

That last point is particularly impressive – compost actually helps to capture carbon from the air and pull it back into the ground, right where we want it, mitigating climate change.

According to the charity Garden Organic, the health of the earth’s soils is fundamental to life as we know it, yet half the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years. The charity urges people to take simple steps to redress this in their own gardens by regularly topping up beds with compost and ensuring soils are not left bare.

 So, in making compost, in your own small way you are actually helping to save the earth.  You don’t have to be a budding Alan Titchmarsh to want to do that!

It goes without saying that council officers tend to be composting enthusiasts themselves. 

Debbie Lee, recycling liaison officer for Redbridge Council, sent us an update of her Green Johanna: ‘The bin is currently swimming in worms and although it is used daily for the three of us and also some of my garden waste it is only 1/5 full as the natural process is magically eating all my food and waste.

‘I am still completely in love with the product. I used some of the compost from my Johanna to make up a planter with two small ivy cuttings. After two weeks, in addition to my intended ivy I now have tomato plants and possibly a pumpkin/ courgette plant thriving in my compost which must have come from the Johanna. Just goes to show what quality is coming out the other end!

Waste minimisation

‘The Green Johanna is one of the most wonderful pieces of waste minimisation there is around!’

Other council officers are equally impressed.

Andrew Jenkins, waste prevention team leader at Buckinghamshire Council, says:

‘The Green Johanna and Green Cone are a brilliant way for residents to put their food waste to good use in the garden and it saves food waste being collected and transported by the council.’

Charles Nouhan, recycling and commercial manager for Sevenoaks District Council, says:

‘Green Cone and Green Johanna food digesters remove all food waste produced by a typical UK household. It is a great solution for residents who have a bit of spare space in their gardens, and a huge help to the local council’s efforts to reduce household waste.’

Amy Williams, lead waste technical officer at Wiltshire Council, says: 

‘These composters are a great way of reducing the amount of food waste that is put into residents’ general waste bins, which ultimately reduces the volume of waste that the council has to dispose of.’

Great Green Systems work with all types of local authorities – county councils, district/borough councils and unitary/metropolitan councils. We design our campaigns around each council’s needs, taking into account issues such as geography, demographics, current and planned recycling and garden waste collections. Campaigns may vary based on whether a council has a budget for subsidy or not, and whether they prefer to offer residents one specific product or a choice of several.  We also design integrated marketing programmes combining digital/social media and traditional print media to promote the offers to residents.

The Great Green Systems motto is – Feed the Earth with Your Food Waste. With the help of our local authority partners, we’re proud to be helping thousands of people to do just that.

Your best friend in fighting food waste

I cook to live, my husband lives to cook.

We share the cooking. On my days everybody knows what they’ll be getting as I have four signature dishes (by signature dish, I mean ‘thing I can cook without a recipe’). I’m no foodie, I like to get cooking out of the way as quickly as possible so I can get on with living.

My cooking habits are good in terms of waste prevention because I buy the same things every week and everything gets used up.


But my husband is a different animal. On his cooking days we never know what we’ll be getting because it seems to depend on what the food fairies whisper in his ear. I shop online because I hate supermarkets. If I ask him what he wants me to add to the online shop, he gets all stressy, saying ‘I can’t shop like that, I don’t know what I’ll feel like cooking!’ (No, I’m not married to Gordon Ramsay).

So I leave him to do his own shopping in person in the actual supermarket. He likes to see, touch and smell food; it inspires him. I think there must be some French strain somewhere in the Birmingham/Dundee DNA mash-up of his family.

This dual shopping routine is far from ideal, since it means he might buy things I’ve already bought. It’s why we ended up recently with three full jars of ground ginger. Not the end of the world, of course, since it stores well and we like ginger biscuits, but that’s the only over-consumption I’m admitting to since I’d be too ashamed to tell you the whole truth.

Unavoidable waste

Obviously, we compost unavoidable food waste in our Green Johanna, but composting should ideally be the final stage in the food waste hierarchy after meal planning and food storage. The environmental cost involved in the production and transporting of food is so high that prevention is better than composting.

We know we should plan meals in advance based on knowing what we already have. We know that, and yet sometimes the pace of modern life means we fall short. Stuff happens. We forget our list. We stress shop. Our husband fails to check the ground ginger situation.

So, when I read about the Kitche free mobile app I was immediately interested.

Kitche’s premise is that fighting food waste starts at home by buying what you eat and eating what you buy.  If we did this, we would help prevent the staggering 4.5 million tonnes of food waste created in the UK each year – enough to fill eight Wembley stadiums.

It goes without saying that by doing this you will save yourself a chunk of money without even depriving yourself of anything. The average family in the UK throws food worth £730 in the bin every year. When it comes to tightening the belt on household expenditure, such unnecessary waste is low-hanging fruit.

Helping hand

We could all do with a helping hand, and that’s what this app is. It’s like a friend by your side when you’re out shopping reminding you that you have enough eggs already.

The app enables you to scan food products from major supermarkets receipts with a snap of your camera so you can keep track of food you’ve got at home, even when you’re on the move. It categorises the products, adds reminders and tracks where you create waste, so you’re shopping smartly, not blindly.

It’s also interestingly informative in a way my dreaded Domestic Science lessons at school never were.  (Frankly, I never got over getting a rollicking for stirring a liquid jelly with a knife.)

There’s advice, such as:

Food tips

I confess I didn’t know this:

  • Onions are best kept in a cool, dry, dark place (ideally in a cloth bag), not the fridge.
  • When freezing milk – pour a little out first, such as in your tea/coffee, because milk will expand in its container.
  • Every day we throw a combined 20 million slices of bread away – mostly because they’ve not been used in time. Freeze it instead – you can use it straight from frozen in the toaster.

What’s in season

There’s a monthly A- Z of fruit and veg so you can shop seasonally. Why is this important? Because more energy is needed to transport, refrigerate and store foods from afar. Buying seasonally also saves money because the food is usually in abundance and lasts longer. It also supports the local economy.

How to store things.

The Can I Freeze It? section is especially useful.  In future I’ll be freezing chopped herbs in an ice cube tray covered with water. They can then be cooked from frozen in casseroles, stews and sauces.


Recipes can be suggested based on what you already have in. I love the recipe for bruschetta that can be adapted to use up just about every leftover you can think of. I need ideas like this because, as I said, I’m no foodie. I’m not that person who can create a delicious meal from whatever’s wilting at the back of the fridge.  Fortunately, I’ve got a new friend who can.  

Importantly, the app also gets children involved with the use of activity packs.

A few years ago, while talking to a Swedish businessman, I told him how impressed I was at the way waste prevention and recycling were at the heart of Swedish life. How had they managed this as a modern, western, consumer society? His answer was simple – education.

Children must be part of every step forward we make. They are creative and  logical thinkers. Meal planning, food storage, cooking and portion control will make perfect sense to them. Going forward they will do this stuff as a matter of course.

As I said, Kitche is the best kind of friend and teacher.

I bet they wouldn’t even mind if you stirred jelly with a knife.


Spare Parts