Zero Waste Week: on cleaning & waste

September 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

Mr M and I produce very little non-recyclable waste, typically less than one small bag per week, which mostly contains pet food packaging, as well as a small bag of Dante’s spent litter.* Our waste, rather than the cat’s, might consist of a couple of plastic food wrappers, some greasy aluminium foil, a meat bone once in a blue moon or maybe some hair dye paraphernalia (reluctantly, a weakness of mine). Careful food shopping in proper independent shops avoids a lot of waste. So does being ruthlessly honest about what household products we actually need.

If advertisers and marketers are to be believed, we need a different product for every room and every type of dirt. This is a new phenomenon and utter nonsense!

Most cleaning jobs requires one or more of the following simple ingredients: a gentle degreasant, a mild acid and/or an abrasive. And of course, some elbow grease. Anything in a spray bottle that claims to be a wonder cleaner is instantly suspect (but keep the bottles to fill with useful products).

There are many recipes available on the Internet for greener, packaging-light cleaning products but the following simple ones work fine for me:

  • a liquid soap, that I buy in refillable bottles. I buy the thickest version and dilute it for different purposes: washing dishes, cleaning the sinks and shower, mopping the floor…;
  • for non-greasy cleaning, like a quick wipe of the counter tops or washing glasses, a mixture of water and vinegar usually does the trick; and
  • for stubborn grease and tea stains I use borax (or borax substitute in Europe) or soda crystals. Just leave the powder to steep in boiling water and once it’s cool enough to handle, scrub the object with an abrasive cloth or scrubbing brush. A pair of washing up gloves come in handy here (or in my case, the gloves left over from dyeing my hair).
Borax - waste free cleaning

A highly effective, multi-purpose plastic-free cleaning product**

Slashing the range of cleaning products I use is one way of avoiding unnecessary waste. Another is to use certain waste products for cleaning.

  • If you have spent lemon or lime segments, vigorously scrub sinks and taps with them and rinse them with water. The citric acid and slightly abrasive pith degrease surfaces and lift limescale far more effectively than anything in a spray bottle!
  • Brew up spent tea leaves (bags) again and use the mildly astringent liquid and an old teeshirt to polish mirrors.
  • If you cannot buy loose fruit and end up with those plastic string bags, collect them and turn them into scourers. Simply scrunch them up and stitch a few together – no need for fancy needlework skills! Then use them to scrub burnt pans.
  • Speaking of cleaning tools, there really is no need to buy dishcloths as most of us have enough fabric in our homes to make our own. I usually cut up old tea towels or worn out teeshirts. (Jersey also makes excellent dusters.) Or if you have yarn leftover at the end of a knitting projects, try your hand at knitting a washcloth, just as Jackie does. In fact, these cloths are a good way to practise new knitting skills.
Knitted dish cloths

A selection of Jackie’s knitted dish cloths***

  • Keep old newspaper for cleaning windows. Spray some vinegar on the window panes and scrub them with scrunched up newspaper using a circular motion. Your windows will be spotless, with none of the stripes that a plastic squeegee leaves.
  • As part of our food recycling system we have a bokashi bin (as well as a compost heap) so we can compost protein and cooked food waste like fish skins, small bones, any meat scraps or stale bread (if there are any!) as well as vegetable peelings and tops. The process produces a liquid by-product that smells pretty noxious but is full of beneficial enzymes. I either dilute it and use it to feed houseplants or pour it down the plug hole as a drain cleaner. Talk about useful waste!

Obviously, I ultimately throw these home-made products away but not before I have squeezed every last drop of utility out of them. Also by making my own products from ‘waste’, I avoid buying new items, saving further waste and a few pounds too.

Please do share any suggestion you have about how to turn waste into a cleaning product using the comments box below.

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This is one of a series of posts written in the context of Zero Waste Week, which advocate a two-pronged approach to reducing waste by avoiding waste at the point of purchase but also by recognising the abundance of wasted resources that we have at our fingertips.

* As non-drivers with a meat-light diet, Dante accounts for a large chunk of our carbon footprint but we would not be without our loveable feline companion!

** Photo taken from DriPak Ltd.

*** Photo courtesy of @jackiemania of Life During Wartime Challenge.

Zero Waste Week… or spotting abundance?

August 27, 2014 § 5 Comments

I’ve signed up to Zero Waste Week. This event is in its seventh year. It runs from 1 to 7 September and encourages people to “reduce landfill waste and save money”.

As readers of this blog know, I advocate waste avoidance and many of my posts hint at old school thriftiness. In many ways every week is Zero Waste Week to me but I particularly like this year’s theme: “One more thing”. It’s a practical, encouraging angle for the challenge, applying equally to those starting out on a ‘lighter’ life as those with established ‘waste-light’ practices. The question “what one more thing could you do?” prompts us to be creative and share inspiration, something I definitely support. Plus, signing up to Zero Waste Week gives me an opportunity to talk about waste from another, arguably more productive, angle.

Click here for National Zero Waste week 2014

Childhood experience

My relationship with ‘waste’ is long and involved.

I grew up in a tiny country, which due to its size was quick off the mark with waste mitigation policies, and the rules in my municipality were particularly draconian: recycling policies were strictly enforced and waste was collected sufficiently infrequently to focus minds on waste minimisation. And then there was the quarterly ‘totting fest’.

As a young child I watched a strange quarterly ritual that saw householders leave big items of waste on the curb for the council to collect the next morning. On those evenings neighbours would pick over each others’ waste, taking what they could use, modify or fix home. You would see people carrying chairs, cases, lamps… Some would even drive around the neighbourhood and tie old armchairs or kitchen cabinets to their roof racks. Within a couple of hours the streets were picked bare, with only scraps left for the council to collect. There was no shame in the practice. The council actively encouraged it. And from a young age I saw real recycling in action: one person’s waste as another’s resource.

This philosophy resonated with what I was learning at home. My parents grew up during wartime Britain and the long austerity years that followed and as such had no concept of waste. Everything was used up or reinvented. And it was an attitude that stayed with them.

Food scraps that could not be turned into another meal fed the compost heap. Cartons, toilet paper holders, plastic bottles… went into the Blue Peter bag as materials for our craft projects. We used scrap wallpaper to cover our school books. Dad used off-cuts of wood from DIY jobs to make toys for us, e.g. a doll’s house for me, a railway set for my brother, a Wendy house for the twins, a theatre for all four of us…

Blue Peter's view of waste

Blue Peter* projects relied on resources that are now considered waste

Through adult eyes

My view that waste is mostly an unused resource has been reinforced by many things. Gardening for one. There is little waste in nature. What may appear as such at first glance is often just a resource for other organisms. Plants shed hundreds of seeds. Some go towards next year’s growth, most are food for other wildlife. Trees lose their leaves in autumn but these provide habitat for creatures and break down to improve soil structure. Once you start to garden, you discover a fascinating system of resource and nutrient cycling!

As someone interested in social history, I love learning how previous generations met everyday needs using all resources available to them, even what we would classify as waste. Food waste was virtually unheard of for centuries as most people struggled to get enough nutrients. Any leftovers from wealthy tables were either collected to be sold to the poorer, given away as part of one’s charitable duty or fed to the pigs. Pretty much everything else would be reused in one form or another. Wood ash was a valuable source of lye for making soap or potash, a useful plant feed. The rag and bone men really bought rags and bones as these could be sold on to be turned into recycled fabric and fertiliser. Wood shavings were useful kindling wood. The list goes on. Even urine was a valuable resource!

Of course consumption levels in Western societies have spun long-established cycles off course. We live in an age when we prefer to extract resources and run industrial process to produce unnecessary or disposable products rather than produce things that last, make things ourselves or fix essential items. And a new industry has developed to deal with previously unimaginable waste.

Adbusters' spoof advert summarises current attitudes to resources & waste

Adbusters’ Twisted Logic advert summarises current attitudes to resources & waste

In my legal years I gained a fascinating insight into the waste industry when I advised on the development of a couple of waste incinerators, which these days masquerade under the term “Energy from Waste” plants. I never set out to work in this sphere and as a committed waste avoider, I felt a fraud advising clients who relied on abundant municipal waste. The projects however provided valuable insights into the workings and limitations of the waste management industry.

Waste conscious or resource minded?

Now I’m certainly not advocating going back to the hunger, cold (heaven forbid!) and lack of health and comfort that most people experienced even a hundred years ago. I do, however, know from my own housekeeping efforts that there is a limit to how much waste we can avoid as consumers. The best way to kick our waste avoidance practices into another gear is to see ourselves as producers and focus on resources, both in terms of what we let into our lives in the first place and in terms of any waste we create along the way. This type of proactive resource management is more empowering and a lot more fun than merely avoiding unnecessary stuff that we never actually asked for. Crucially, it also reminds us that waste is not inevitable!

So yes, I have signed up to Zero Waste Week and I’ll be using the week to refine my domestic resource management further, but mostly to highlight the abundance at my fingertips.

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* The Blue Peter ship is taken from the Radio Times website.

A naughty challenge

If you already refuse plastic bags at the check-out, consider taking it a step further. I have been known to take wrapping off clothes and stationery items at the cash register and leave it there. I do it with good grace and explain to shop assistants why. I also use the free return labels on deliveries to send back excess packaging with an explanatory note. Yes, it diverts waste from my bin but more importantly, if we systematically make disposing of unnecessary packaging the retailers’ problem, more specifically a cost for them, they may get the message and demand a different approach from their suppliers.

Victory Garden Update (by @jackiemania)

August 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Meg and Gosia:

Jackie is a woman after my own heart! Like me, she is an economist in the purest sense of the word, i.e. a manager of a household. Her management style, like mine, focusses on production (rather than purchasing): cooking from scratch, making some of her own clothes, going back to source ingredients to make cleaning and cosmetic concoctions and of, course, growing some of her own produce. And like me, Jackie doesn’t only run an abundant home for human (and feline) companions. She also provides shelter and food for the local wildlife, which plays an important role in pollinating plants, propagating trees…

Originally posted on Life During Wartime Challenge:

Ah, it’s Tomato Time! The other day I had so many tomatoes from the garden that I didn’t know what in the world to do with them. Don’t worry, I figured it out! I ate them fresh every day, slow roasted (cut small tomatoes in half, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, put on a little fresh thyme, 300 oven, 3 or 4 hours) over 20 of them for a great addition to all kinds of foods,

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blanched, peeled, diced, then froze over 10 cups of them for future stews, soups, and sauces, and gave some to friends. It looks like we will have an additional abundance of ripe tomatoes over the weekend, and I plan to make a fresh tomato sauce (gravy for the Italian Americans). It’s a little labor intensive but so, so good — last year my husband told me he had an out of body…

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Pasta in a van…?

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

During Plastic Free July I joined an online discussion (or rather a collective rant) about the packaging of staple foods. Not just about the nature of packaging but whether it is necessary at all. We were bemoaning the lack of bulk bin stores in the UK, which makes it very difficult to avoid (plastic) packaging when buying rice, pulses and other starches. In an attempt to be constructive I pointed out that at least, where pasta is concerned, we can go plastic-free by making our own. That statement prompted someone to ask whether it would be possible to make pasta in a van? My response was “I don’t see why not” (not to mention, “why in a van?”).

Whilst domestic bread baking has really taken off, many seem to be wary about making their own pasta… as if it is some mysterious product that requires strange tools and alchemy. So, I thought I would demystify the process.

Ingredients and basic method

I use a Tuscan recipe that is incredibly simple and scalable. The following amounts feed three to four adults:

  • 300 g of plain flour, preferably tipo ’00’ durum wheat
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • pinch of sea salt

If you have a mixer or food processor, toss all ingredients in and mix it into a shiny ball – it will look more like very rich short pastry rather than dough. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour, add the salt, crack the eggs into the well and mix the dough with your finger tips by bringing the flour into the centre and working it into the eggs (a bit like when we made mud pies as children). Add the oil while the mixture is still craggy and knead until the pastry looks slightly glossy.

Leave the pasta to rest for 20 to 30 mins, covered with a damp towel, so the gluten can start to develop. This will make it a lot easier to roll out.

A word about tools

I do have a pasta mangle*, but usually I just make pasta with a rolling pin. Simply cut the dough into three or four pieces and roll out on a very lightly floured surface. Lift the pasta regularly and turn it a quarter. The key is to keep rolling until you can see the grain of the wood/pattern of the countertop through the dough. It takes a few minutes but not as long as you would think, and generally less time than it takes to wipe the dust off the mangle and set it up! The dough should be quite elastic so it will always shrink back a little after you stop rolling it out.

Once thin enough you can cut the pasta into the desired shape with a knife (or pastry cutter, pizza wheel…). I tend to make pappardelle or tagliatelle but you can also cut sheets for lasagna or cannelloni, or make discs or squares for tortellini or ravioli.

If you are cutting ribbons, hang them up to dry a little so they cook as separate strips. The rotary drying racks that are sold with pasta machines are generally too small to be of any use so I improvise. I often drape the pasta over large bowls but have been known to use the clothes airer before now. You could also use a piece of dowelling rod suspended between two cabinets, chairs… and hang the ribbons over that.

Homemade pasta

No fuss pasta and fresh basil pesto

Cooking, serving and savouring

As this pasta is super fresh, it cooks in minutes… and I really do mean minutes. Also, much like when boiling potatoes or rice, you will find a slightly starchy residue in the water. This is completely normal.

The taste of homemade pasta is a revelation. It is not anything like the hard dried pasta or pappy fresh pasta you can buy in the supermarket. Just like homegrown potatoes, homemade pasta tastes a little more fibrous, probably because the dough is not as homogenised as that of pasta prepared in industrial mixers. Not only does homemade pasta taste vastly better than shop bought variants, I find it makes a better carrier for sauces. In the autumn I love homemade papardelle with pheasant or rabbit ragu but in the summer, nothing beats homemade tagliatelle with pesto made from homegrown basil!

Another little known benefit of homemade pasta: it will keep for up to six weeks! If you want to make a big batch and store some, just make sure it is thoroughly dry before putting it in an air tight container. I leave it out overnight just to be sure.

The only downside about making your own pasta is that once you have tasted your own, you will probably not want to go back to the ‘convenience’ of plastic-clad shop bought pasta!

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Homemade basil pesto 

Much like your own pasta, homemade pesto is a feast for the taste buds, and it is incredibly simple to make. Grow basil from seed or buy a plant and grow it on in the kitchen. Take a couple of handfuls of fresh basil leaves, a garlic clove or two, a good tablespoon of grated parmesan and a heaped teaspoon of pine kernels and blitz them a little with a mini mixer or liquidiser. Add a good splash of olive oil and continue to blitz the mixture until you reach your preferred consistency. (Serves 2)

As pesto is so easy to make I usually only make enough for one sitting but if you have any left, it will keep for several days in a small jar if you add enough olive oil to cover the pesto. This fills in any holes so there is no air in which bacteria can breed.

* If space and/or budget are tight, I would definitely recommend investing in a good rolling pin and a mini mixer (and quality durum wheat, of course) rather than a pasta maker as you will get much more use out of both those tools. If you do decide to buy a pasta maker, check that the mechanism for fixing the machine to a surface works with your kitchen counters/table.

Antwerp: memories and mixed emotions

August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

I had been apprehensive about my weekend in Antwerp. I was not really sure what to expect. Not so much of the place, more of my response to the city of my youth. I went back to the old city semi-regularly when my parents were still alive but since dad died three years ago, I have not had much occasion to visit.

Late on Friday afternoon Mr M and I chugged into Central Station. The journey from London couldn’t have been more convenient. Get on the Eurostar at St. Pancras International at a civilised time; arrive in Brussels-Midi; cross over to platform 19 for the Intercity to Antwerp. It is not even necessary to interrupt our progress to queue for a local ticket as the Eurostar fair covers the cost to any Belgian station.

Antwerp Central Station

Central station: scene of many arrivals

After checking into our hotel and freshening up we were ready to head into the old town for a pre-dinner drink and some food. I had booked a table in one of my old haunts, De Grootte Witte Arend. A pleasant café off Groenplaats with a little courtyard where we could sip an aperitif. The food was good in the way that I remembered: simple, fresh and tasty continental café food… which in my case came with plenty of grey shrimps. The coffee, even the decaffeinated, was robust and the service charming. In the damp heat of a summer’s evening, Antwerp was reassuringly familiar.

The courtyard of an old haunt

The courtyard of an old haunt

In the cold light of day, however, the emotions crept in.

The city is much smaller than London, Paris, New York,… or even sizeable provincial cities like Manchester or Milan. Consequently there are memories in every twist and turn of this medieval city. Memories of mum dragging me and my siblings down one of the shopping streets in search of winter shoes; of marching from the bus stop to school every day for six years; of waiting on the steps in Central Station as a teenager to meet friends for an afternoon of window shopping; of spending Sunday afternoons in the art house cinema followed by coffee and cake in De Lantaren – one of my favourite cafés; of buying flowers for mum on the way home from school just to surprise her; of restaurants where I shared a meal with dad on trips ‘home’ after we’d lost mum… Inevitably there were a few tears, not for the passing of time but for the sad emptiness that losing loved ones brings.

The more I wandered down familiar streets the more another type of sadness crept in too. The city of my youth was looking quite forlorn.

Familiar old streets of a changing city

A familiar old street of a changing city

The global recession has left its mark. Many restaurants and cafés are standing empty, including many old favourites, or have become fast food joints. Smart shops, where I could once only aspire to shop, are either boarded up or have been turned into pop-up outlets. There was more graffiti, a lot more. The sixth form block of my old school has been sold off. Even the central library is no more. At least the space has been taken over by a college but it was a shock to see nonetheless.

The homogenisation of globalisation has also set in. More international chains have moved in and many traditional old neighbourhoods have been redeveloped into bland corporate flats. The independent character and eclectic architecture that once defined the city are slowly ebbing away…

I hadn’t expected a city the size of Antwerp to remain unchanged; I just hadn’t been ready for quite how much it has changed.

Amidst the shock of all this change there were a few glimmers of hope. I hadn’t realised that our weekend would coincide with the gay pride march, an event that would have been unthinkable in the traditional Antwerp of my youth. Admittedly I barely heard a single Flemish dialect from the revellers but the fact the city was even hosting the march suggests attitudes have moved on. Public transport remains excellent and is being expanded: familiar tram routes have been extended further into the suburbs and urban hire bikes are everywhere. The old art cinema has survived and is still screening films from Japan, Iran, Spain, France… And I even spotted a shop frontage suggesting Antwerp is getting a ‘bulk buy’ store – the first in Belgium.

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The old market square, setting for gay pride revelry and, alas, many insolvencies

On Sunday Mr M and I had lunch with the lovely G, one of my oldest friends. Amongst our exchange of news she announced that she would probably be posted abroad soon and was looking forward to adventures in a new city and time zone. With her leaving Belgium, I suspect it will be some time before I am back in Antwerp. Hopefully by then the city of my youth will have re-found the ‘gezelligheid‘ that made it such an attractive place to know.

Learning: for the sheer joy of it

July 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

Although it’s the height of summer, I’m already looking forward to autumn as September means a new academic year and lots of new learning opportunities. I may have finished school and university years ago but in many ways I have never really left. My curiosity and desire to learn are stronger than ever, and once again, I find myself scouring prospectus and websites, scribbling down details of courses and workshops to work out which I can fit in around my schedule.

London is a superb place if you love learning. There’s no shortage of community colleges, academic centres and private teachers but opportunities to learn or develop new skills can also be found in the oddest corners, not to mention online*. Here’s an overview of just some of the opportunities I’ve embraced over the years.

University short courses and community colleges

Many London universities offer short courses in the evening or as winter/summer schools. These courses are not the cheapest but there are some real gems to be had. I have spent a fair few terms at SSEES’ language centre refreshing my rusty Russian and have learnt millinery at the London College of Fashion during the holiday months. Recently The CassAlternative Photographic Printmaking and instrument making courses have caught my eye.

Community colleges may be the Cinderella of adult education but they are not to be underestimated as they offer a wide range of courses, including short weekend ones, usually at very democratic prices.  My favourites are Morley College, City Lit, Bishopsgate Institute and my local college in Greenwich. The teaching on the weekend bra making course at Morley was as good as anything I experienced at the London College of Fashion and the pottery teachers at my local community college are amazing. Whenever possible, I like to use these colleges, particularly in times of public spending cuts as their survival depends (in part) on them being able to demonstrate they serve a real need.

Music lessons abound

I regret never learning to play an instrument as I child but have been making up for it as an adult. Whilst there are many private music teachers in London, I generally enjoy group classes more, like the accordion courses at Morley or the weekend fiddle classes at Cecil Sharpe House (part folk art centre, part music archive).

Violin late starter

Late starter with the violin

Group lessons are often seen as the poor relation to private ones but it all depends on the teaching and the student’s aim. My teachers have covered technique and drilled us with scales, arpeggios and finger exercises, but much like a good language teacher, their focus has been on getting us to make music from day one. As such over half the lesson is devoted to playing together, using technique in practice, learning to listen to and work with fellow musicians whilst playing… There is certainly a place for Grade exams and I use the ABRSM books at home to galvanise my technique but at my stage of life I really don’t need yet another formal certificate. I just want to enjoy playing music with other people. To this end, next term I might join The Goose is Out beginner’s pub session or East London Late Starters Orchestra.

Mastering a new language

As a linguist I never tire of learning new languages. Classes are the traditional route and I have attended many in my lifetime. Community colleges and university language centres are obvious providers but as many countries have designated institutes to promote their language abroad (e.g. Goethe Institute for German, ICI for Italian, Cervantes Instituto for Spanish), it is also worth checking consulate websites.

If the wallet or schedule do not stretch to classes, books and CDs are a good starting point. I have picked up a couple of new languages using these tools, in my case Serbo-Croatian and Swedish.** However, it is necessary to supplement this learning with other tools to get as much exposure to a language as possible. Twenty years ago this meant tuning into short band radio, hunting out foreign magazines at an international news stand or catching the occasional foreign film in the cinema. Now we can access foreign news, films, music, blogs… with a simple Google search. Regularly reading a few paragraphs of a blog, listening to a ten-minute clip on YouTube or trying to join an online forum conversation in a foreign language all help build vocabulary, idioms, an ear for grammar…

Teach yourself Gaelic

The starting point for my latest linguistic project

Unusual and invisible learning 

There are many other avenues for learning beyond formally documented courses. Scratch the surface of the city and they are easy enough to find.

For example, I learnt green wood carving from a group of ‘bodgers’ that runs open days and very affordable introductory courses in a corner of a London cemetery. How did I stumble across this opportunity? I was curious about the craft, researched whether it was covered by a guild or association and then followed the links on the website of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Wood Workers. The same approach will work for most traditional crafts.

If you are interested in creative writing but don’t fancy a formal course, check if there are any writing clubs in local bookshops. These offer a less formal setting for developing writing skills by providing a focus and supportive feedback, as well as a chance to learn by critiquing others’ efforts.

In this age of commoditised services, it is easy to overlook how much we can actually learn from each other. For example, a family friend taught me the basics of welding, and I have taught a couple of acquaintances to crochet. Many people are only too happy to share skills, just look at how many knitting and stitching clubs have sprung up in recent years. Or how many people have posted how-to clips on YouTube, from how to make a blind or saw a mortise and tenon joint to how to write calligraphy or develop film negatives with coffee…

It may require a little research and ingenuity, some juggling of time, finances*** and priorities, but for me, it has never been easier to satisfy my curiosity and hunger to learn.

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* I have not touched on the many online learning options available. I am currently experimenting with some free courses delivered via FutureLearn and shall blog about my findings in the coming months.

** I should qualify this statement by clarifying that I am a linguist by training so accustomed to language learning. That said, my sister has also been learning languages this way and it seems to work for her too.

*** Course fees can be a barrier to learning but many institutions have concessionary rates. For example, Greenwich Community College offers borough residents a discount, as well as generous concessions for those on benefits. Also, if fees are charged per term, it is worth working out the hourly rate when assessing the cost. Some courses I’ve attended actually cost as little as £4 or 5 per hour and were first-rate!

 

Going plastic free: dilemmas and barcodes

July 26, 2014 § 3 Comments

I knew Plastic Free July would be a challenge. Even for somebody who is very waste conscious, focusing on avoiding single-use plastic makes you realise just how all-pervasive it is.

It is relatively easy to eradicate a whole host of plastic, e.g. by refusing disposable cups, refilling detergent bottles, buying vegetables loose at the grocer’s, cooking from scratch, keeping toiletries truly natural and to a minimum… but it is proving harder to make headway with other routine household products (e.g. cured meat, yoghurt, yeast, tea and coffee, seeds and grains…), not to mention the ad hoc goods. And the process is not made easier by the dilemmas you stumble across along the way.

Dilemmas: almost as ubiquitous as plastic

In early July I was drawn into a discussion about milk. We’re lucky to have a milkman who delivers organic milk in returnable bottles. Perfect, I thought. Until I learnt that the dairy had slashed the price it pays dairy farmers, forcing many out of business. I could buy milk from one of the supermarkets or an organic vegetable box scheme, both of which pay farmers a fairer price. However both use non-returnable plastic bottles… So do I opt for a product that ticks one environmental and one social box or one that ticks two environmental boxes but has human consequences?

There is no perfect solution yet so I contacted the dairy about paying farmers a fair price and the vegetable box company to suggest it looks into phasing in an alternative to plastic. Unfortunately the former did not reply and the latter’s response, which cited health, safety and supplier convenience, was less than heartening. People seem to have forgotten that for generations milk has been moved in non-plastic containers. Personally, I prefer bringing back enamel milk cans that milkmen fill up on their van!

Plastic-free milk

Milk: a plastic-free dilemma

Soap is another a minefield. Some branded soaps come in a cardboard box or I can buy loose bars from my local organic shop but both contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. After much research I found that Marcel Fabré makes palm oil free Savon de Marseille but it does come with a thin plastic wrapper. So, which is the lesser evil? In the case of soap, I reluctantly accept the plastic wrapper to avoid palm oil and because this soap is a good all-rounder that dispenses with a host of other cleaning products.

A delivery of wool illustrates another dilemma. I ordered some Fenella, a lovely soft yarn grown, spun and dyed in Britain. Inevitably, it arrived packed in a plastic envelope. What would have been the alternative? I could have gone to the nearest wool shop but that only stocks the big brand yarns. Whilst these might have done the job, I want my purchases to matter. Green credentials, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as I want to avoid unnecessary plastics, I also want to support small businesses that shorten supply chains and translate into livelihoods for real people rather than profits for anonymous shareholders. Sometimes this means mail order. And as my postman tends to leave parcels out in the rain, there is a lot to be said for textile and fibre being sent in water proof packages… *

I blame the barcode…

Despite many retailers’ claims, packaging goods in plastic is rarely driven by health and hygiene considerations and almost always driven by convenience! Centralisation and automation mean products arrive in shops clad in plastic, ready for a barcode sticker. For example, this month I bought a couple of photo frames, a protractor, a new notebook and a set of double pointed sock needles. All came with the obligatory plastic wrapper and barcode, with the exception of the needles, which came in a cardboard box as well as a plastic sleeve!

Packaging & barcodes

Ubiquitous wrappers & barcodes

It is astonishing how quickly plastic packaging and barcodes have taken over. Twenty odd years ago, at the start of each school year, we would head to the newsagent’s or supermarket and select notebooks, pencils, rulers… off the shelf. There was no wrapping; at most a price sticker that had been label gunned on. The same applied to knitting needles, which came on a piece of card or tied together with an elastic band. It may seem archaic now, much like doing a manual inventory, but it meant less packaging and shop keepers who knew their stock!

Some successes too

A plethora of dilemmas and barcodes is of course no reason not to persist and cut out unnecessary plastics. And as much as I regret the lack of Belgian/French-style charcuterie shops or stores that sell staples from bulk bins, there have been some successes this month.

I have realised, that just like pasta**, gnocchi is incredibly easy to make and is better than the starchy mini pillows available from supermarket refrigerators. We have also eliminated soda water bottles, not by substituting them with cans but by investing in a soda siphon. The simple system involves disposable cartridges but these are small, made of steel, recyclable and worth recycling. In the process, we have also phased out tetrapaks of orange juice. As I never really liked sweet juices, we have switched to bitter cordials, like Sarsaparilla or Dandelion and Burdock. These old school drinks are available in glass bottles and are so intense that the merest drizzle goes a long way! I also discovered to my delight that Marks & Spencer now offers more of its tights in little cardboard boxes, without plastic windows and wrappers – much like shops did years ago.

Plastic-free alternatives

Stylish & tasty plastic-free alternatives

And although not a success in the purist’s sense, I have found a home for the rare yoghurt or cream pot that enters our house. The art tutors in my local community college can’t get enough little pots for mixing paints, slips and glazes. In their eyes, yoghurt pots are not disposable single-use items but a useful resource. And that is ultimately the key to addressing the mountains of waste, whether plastic or otherwise. We should not beat ourselves up about the occasional plastic wrapper that seeps into our life but rather develop a resource conscious mindset. After all, waste is a new concept in the history of mankind, not a given!

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* The plastic packaging may have been a ‘necessary evil’ but it proved useful: I recycled it to send a parcel of wool and tea to a friend.

** As I’ve had some queries about making your own pasta, a dedicated post will follow soon.

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