Tea: revelation and revolution

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

Most of Brits don’t think twice about tea. It’s such a staple in our individual and collective make-up. Although coffee has come on leaps and bounds in this country, tea is still very much a fixture of life. Like the first cup of tea in the morning; the restrained luxury of tea and scones; or the general view that a cuppa is pretty much a cure-all.

Despite spending nearly thirty of my forty years abroad, my attitude to tea has always been incredibly British. In fact, tea is my only real addiction, or rather was until recently.

I had been sleeping badly for a while. Taking forever to fall asleep was nothing new but my dreams were more complex than normal and I was waking up more exhausted than when I’d gone to bed. One evening I was discussing the matter with my sister and she asked me whether I had a cut-off time for my last cup of tea of the day. My response was a dead-pan “Just before bed”. For all my adult life, possibly even longer, I had drank a cup of tea just before turning in for warmth and comfort, but articulating it so bluntly threw a switch in the brain. Not a “I’ll stop doing this immediately” switch, rather a nagging curiosity: could I break the habit of a lifetime; did I even want to?

A few days later I was reading other bloggers’ experiences of Plastic Free July, including Westy Writes‘ and Treading my Own Path‘s posts about tea, or rather teabags. To their and my amazement most teabags contain plastic, actually a thin plastic filament. For years I have been merrily adding my endless pile of teabags to the recycling bin and wondering why they took forever to decompose and now I know. They are not actually compostable!

Plastic in teabags

They look plastic free but are they really?*

Of course, the easiest solution is to not use tea bags in the first place. I have always drunk some loose leaf tea but, as I was drinking eight to ten mugs a day – yes, I know, it’s astonishing I slept at all! – washing up the teapot and strainer became a bit of a bore. On the whole, convenience won as far as my tea consumption was concerned.

However, the seed sown by the conversation with my sister collided with my annoyance at discovering that a resource (oil) was being unnecessarily wasted on the humble teabag, making an otherwise compostable item non-biodegradable. The statement by a particular tea company only added to my indignation. TeaDirect’s presumption that “most people don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care” riled me so much that from one day to the next I slashed my tea intake.

The first three days were grim. The headaches were worse than those I experienced when I stopped drinking coffee, probably as I never consciously went on an espresso detox and, of course, as I had tea as a crutch. Then there was the fidgetiness and perversely my sleep was even more erratic than before. After three days however, much to my astonishment, my body was telling me in no uncertain terms that it did not want more than two or three mugs of tea a day. Now, if I have any more, I get the shakes!

Having slashed my tea intake to normal proportions, I now make tea in a pot and enjoy drinking it out from a cup, rather than a large mug. I think the psychology and process of pouring myself a second cuppa has made cutting back easier. As I have a supply of teabags and hate waste, I am of course using them up but by emptying the leaves into the pot so I can at least compost the tea. However, once the bags are gone, I shall be a strictly loose leaf girl.

Tea ceremony

My little tea ceremony

My recent tea revolution came completely out of the blue. It was not some long-held aspiration or a detox I had considered in detail. It just happened because I hit upon the right motivation at the right time. A spark turbo-charged my will power to break a habit, admittedly a very old one, and replace it with quite a jolly new one. And for me, that spark was anger that a tea company dared to presume that I did not care!


If you too are indignant about unnecessary plastic in teabags, do write to your favourite tea company and tell them so. Lindsay of Treading My Own Path has collated some contact details here.

* Twining’s teabags are merely used as an example. Any teabag that is heat-sealed, rather than stapled or stitched, is likely to contain plastic.

Savoury heaven

September 26, 2014 § 8 Comments

I have a weakness for savoury nibbles. You can keep sweet desserts, indulgent cakes and fancy chocolates…; salty, spicy or tangy snacks are my downfall. There’s generally a jar of olives or cornichons in the fridge to deal with savoury cravings but I’m always on the look out for easy recipes.

One of the quickest solutions is to whizz up a tin of white or cannellini beans with several cloves of garlic, a few sundried tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and use it as a dip for crudités. The dense paste keeps for several days if stored in the fridge and doubles up as a sandwich spread. Mr M’s tzatziki – with a generous helping of garlic and plenty of lemon juice – also ticks the box.

For extra crunch, I might make herb grissini as part of my weekly bread bake. Reinvigorated homemade flatbread is another easy option. Flatbreads go stale pretty quickly but I always make more than I need as I can revive them for nibbles. Just slice them into strips or triangles, brush them with olive oil, pop them in a very hot dry frying pan, add sea salt and/or a pinch of paprika, and heat through on both sides.

Rustic breadsticks

Rustic breadsticks

Recently I added two new recipes to my armoury that are easy, tasty and will definitely become firm favourites.

Encouraged by Anne Marie – aka the enthusiastic ZeroWasteChef – I tried my hand at aioli last week. I’ve always loved the taste of it but was put off by concerns about it being difficult to make or not being able to finish it before it went off. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I used Anne Marie’s recipe but halved the amount of olive oil when I did the cup to ml conversion. This was partly due to instinct – Mr M uses Mediterranean quantities of olive oil; I treat it a lot more sparingly – and partly due to stirring and storing practicalities.

As I don’t have a food processor, I made aioli by hand. I used a pestle and mortar to crush the salt and garlic and added the egg yokes and lemon juice. Using a balloon whisk I whipped the mixture vigorously whilst slowly adding the oil. This may sound like hard work but it didn’t take too long and worked fine, even with a shoulder injury. What’s more, working by hand allows you to feel the change in consistency, which is oddly satisfying. The whole process took less than ten minutes, including the washing up. In fact, the hardest thing was not devouring the luscious yellow mix before Mr M got home!

I served the aioli as part of a meze style meal of homemade falafel, crudités, salads and savoury biscuits, presenting it in a small jar so I could pop any remaining dip in the fridge. As it contains raw egg yolks I would not recommend storing it for more than a day or two but as it is so glorious, I doubt it would hang around that long anyway. The next day Mr M and I polished it off with some sautéed potatoes!

Aioli and tomato & thyme shortbread

Two heavenly savoury snacks

These tomato & thyme shortbreads (flagged by the lovely Jackie of Life During Wartime Challenge) make the most moorish savoury biscuits. Once again, I played around with the proportions. I only made half a batch but added more flour to reduce the overall fat content (to about 5-6 oz flour to 2 oz butter). I knew the result would be a little drier but made up for this by increasing the amount of tomato paste. I also used more thyme than recommended as I had picked too much.

The finished biscuits were a revelation! Piquant with a lovely lingering tangy flavour and not nearly as greasy as cheese savouries. Best of all, they keep for almost a week in an airtight container and the flavour gets better as they mature. I was so impressed with this recipe, I think I shall try some variations, using garlic paste instead of tomato and any number of herbs or seeds.

Making my own savoury snacks obviously involves more effort than popping to the shop for a bag of crisps or salsa, but not that much more. And because the resulting flavours are so interesting, a cheeky snack becomes a proper sit-down meal to be savoured with company and maybe a drop of wine.

A year in the garden: abundance, learning and little victories

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a chill in the air, dusk is falling earlier by the day and autumn has definitely arrived in the garden. As I’ve harvested many of our crops, pots and beds are looking emptier than usual. There’s still work to be done (reinvigorating the soil, sowing a final few winter crops and laying the groundwork for next year) but it’s a good time to reflect on what a joy my little urban garden has been this year, celebrate the successes, learn from the less productive spaces and admire nature’s amazing processes.

Bs & Cs

I have had particular success with edible Bs and Cs this year.

Basil – This Mediterranean herb is temperamental! It doesn’t like it too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. For years I have tried to grow it without much success. My seedlings tended to stay spindly and then rot. This year, however, the combination of happy seed, satisfactory soil, a gently warm location, pinching out and regular harvesting came together. As a result we’ve had a bumper crop of basil and a lot of luscious pesto!

Beetroots – These roots aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but Mr M and I love them – especially in borscht or with salmon or sill and soured cream. Fortunately, they also seem to love our conditions. We’ve been enjoying earthy red roots since late spring; had a minor glut in August allowing me to preserve some for the hungry gap; and still have plenty to see us through till early winter.

Beans – This was the year I cracked the art of growing beans. I suspect the super performance of runner and French beans (both climbing and dwarf ones) was down to a combination of position, soil turbocharged with our compost and the weather. At the height of summer we were picking beans every other day.

Grow your own beans

Relief and delight when the first beanlets appear

And before long you have a regular supply of beans

And before long we had a regular supply

Carrots – Last year I successfully grew a few carrots in deep pots so this season I quadrupled production by diligently sowing Chantenay and Amsterdam Forcing in succession. I still use pots, typically eight to twelve inches in diameter and a good foot deep, as it is easier to ensure the right soil conditions. Also, by placing the pots on shelves around the garden, I can use marginal spaces as well as reduce the risk of carrot fly.

Cucumbers – With space limited I decided to grow only one plant so I ruthlessly selected the healthiest looking seedling and nurtured it. Growing fruiting plants in this climate requires patience and a little hope that the sun will come out but both were definitely rewarded. We had a steady crop of knobbly cucumbers, more gherkin than the watery specimens found in shops. Combined with our garlic and mint, a tub of Greek yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon each cucumber made the most moreish tzatziki!

Chard and brassica – Just as in previous years, rainbow chard, spring cabbage and kales of most description continued to thrive in our productive backyard.

Some disappointments and continuous learning

Not all crops did so well, of course, but even the disappointments offered useful lessons.

Potatoes – This year’s crop was very tasty but not plentiful. The largest yields came from the second earlies that I had grown in the Vital Earth’s punchy peat-free compost. The other tubs contained a much inferior but more readily available peat-free mix that I had bought out of time constraints. And I paid the price for it! When it comes to gardening, the soil really is the key ingredient so I’ll have to be more organised next year. I also learnt of another way to maximise potato yields in small spaces. Apparently it’s possible to grow a second batch of first earlies in late summer to ensure a modest crop of potatoes at Christmas, something I shall definitely try next year.

Tomatoes – I was very relieved not to have a reoccurrence of blight but I’ve realised that I should stick to bush tomatoes. With limited space and a north easterly aspect, I just don’t get enough sun to ripen up my cordons of Ailsa Craig and Black Russian. Better to select various bush or tumbling varieties that produce an abundance of cherry tomatoes in quick succession!

Grow your own vegetables

Abundance everywhere but the tomatoes refuse to ripen

And the less obvious yields

Compost – As I said, good soil truly is an essential ingredient for a productive garden. Well rotted compost is the key! We’ll always have to import some but I have squeezed in two compost bins to make as much as I can in our tiny space. This year, much to my delight I harvested rich, crumbly compost from the Dalek shaped one. Throughout the months of feeding the vat, turning the contents and waiting, you have to trust that the mix will do its thing, and then one day you open the bin to find dark brown, fresh smelling soil. When harvesting this precious material, it’s hard not to feel a connection with ancient civilisations. After all, without compost there would have been no agriculture and without agriculture no civilisations!

Leafmould – I was incredibly excited last week: I harvested my first batch of leafmould ever. This medium is the ultimate no-hassle garden crop. All you need is leaves, space and patience. I can muster the last but in a patio garden the first two are more problematic. I managed to find a corner in the darkest part of the patio for a homemade wire bin. The sycamore in the neighbour’s garden provides some leaves each year but most came from me sweeping up leaves in little parks nearby (i.e. by me importing waste). The result is a crumbly dry medium that I can combine with our compost and a little perlite to make peat-free potting mix.

Home-made leafmould

Imported waste & patience turned into a useful growing medium

Wildlife – Wildlife, like good soil, is essential for a bountiful garden. When we moved in five years ago, our garden was as barren as the surrounding ones but over the years my efforts have brought creepers, crawlers and flutterers to our backyard. The hoverflies, ladybirds and bees are particularly delightful. This year, we’ve not only admired boisterous bumblebees and contented solitary bees but we also spotted mason bees in abundance. And the variety of birds has also taken off. My heart lept when I saw sparrows in the garden. I know, these little birds may not look remarkable but as they are in decline in urban Britain, discovering them is a joy. And when I discovered song thrushes rioting over the legions of snails I felt I was winning… not a major victory in the global scheme but a victory nonetheless!

Zero Week Waste: reflections and perspectives

September 18, 2014 § 5 Comments

Zero Waste Week is over for another year but as the initiative is the starting point for new habits or an opportunity to reinvigorate some established ones, it’s worth taking stock and working out where to focus efforts going forward.

The good news

Although there’s far too much waste in our society, the sheer volume means there are many easy wins, and we can have some fun along the way.

  • Some waste streams are easier to avoid than others. Food waste is the big one here. In the United Kingdom nearly half of all food waste is down to householders (rather than producers and distributors) (1) but with a bit of planning and some basic cooking skills, food waste can easily be cut to next to nothing.
  • Growing at least some food yourself is an enjoyable way to cut waste. Homegrown food, even if grown in pots on the windowsill or a patio, means tasty packaging-free food, picked fresh as and when it’s needed or preserved in reusable containers for the winter months. If space is limited, stick to herbs, salad leaves, a chilli plant… as all are expensive to buy and are invariably sold in plastic.
  • Recycling has really taken off in Europe (due to strict landfill taxes and targets) as it has in much of the United States, according to comments made by readers and fellow bloggers. There is therefore increasingly no excuse not to recycle.
  • Thinking in terms of resources rather than waste is a creative way to shrink the contents of our rubbish bin. Food is a good place to start but cast the net wider: most paper, textiles, containers… have multiple uses over their lifespan. In some ways we should view our homes more like small businesses, which understand the need to maximise resources and control waste as both affect the bottom line.
  • Best of all, there is an amazing community of waste avoiders, whose ideas, encouragement and imagination we can all draw on! Through Zero Waste Week I have connected with some inspiring, highly imaginative and very generous people!
Food Waste

Advice that is still as relevant today as in 1917 (2)

The frustrating bits

Anybody looking to live an ethically and environmentally kinder life is likely to face dilemmas and challenges.

  • As today’s production and distribution systems are rooted in wasteful practices, eliminating waste can feel like a relentless project. Buying directly from suppliers or at traditional grocery shops and markets is often the easiest first step. Next we need to get vocal and proactive. Speak and write to retailers asking them to reduce unnecessary packaging or stock certain goods in bulk bins and, of course, support retailers who do so with our custom.
  • No matter how diligent we are about avoiding waste, there will always be dilemmas, where we have to weigh up the social or environmental benefits of a product against its waste implications. In my case, my desire to avoid palm oil means certain unpackaged or lightly packaged products are off-limits.
  • Recycling is not a panacea. Some recycling processes are highly energy, water or chemical intensive and depending on the material recycled or produced the net benefit may be limited. So whilst it definitely makes sense to recycle items like aluminium (3)*, glass, batteries…, with other materials it makes more sense to avoid the product altogether. Take a look at this excellent post by Lindsay of Treading My Own Path on the recycling of Tetrapaks.
  • Meticulously cutting out unnecessary waste is great but we should not lose sight of the overall picture. In terms of reducing our environmental impacts, it makes more sense to address wasted energy first, e.g. by replacing bulbs with LEDs or draught proofing the home, before fretting about a greener alternative to replacement razor blades.
LED bulbs

Zero Waste Week was a catalyst for me to institute other energy saving measures, like swapping more light bulbs for LEDs (4)

Some awkward truths

Throughout Zero Waste Week I have emphasised resources rather than waste because in efficient systems many waste streams are a useful resource for the system or a nearby one (and I don’t mean the waste incinerator!). That doesn’t mean that initiatives like Zero Waste Week are not useful. Waste is a proxy for consumption and by auditing our waste, we shine a light, often an uncomfortable one, on our consumption habits… which brings me to the more tricky issues.

The best way for many of us to slash our waste going forward is to cut out most of the things we don’t really need. This sounds drastic and is rarely a popular suggestion but it will have a much bigger impact than substituting one unnecessary product with another supposedly greener one. It also frees up time and money for more enjoyable (waste-light) activities, like finally training for that marathon, baking your own tasty bread at the weekend, mastering a new skill, spending time with family and friends,… Moreover, it means that occasional luxuries or frivolities truly feel like treats!

As I advocate reduction rather than substitution, it’s only fair I acknowledge that this is not an ethically neutral position. Less demand for stuff means fewer jobs, at home and abroad. As much as I avoid pointless packaging, wasteful supermarkets and unnecessary products, I recognise that the packaging, manufacturing and food retail sectors mean jobs for a lot of people. Experienced economists and academics are only starting to grapple with how we square the need for a socially beneficial economy with finite resources so I’ll not pretend to have the answers. I shall, however, share what minor steps I take to try to balance competing environmental and human considerations.

  • Buying less saves money so when I shop for essentials, I can favour products with organic, local, “living wage”/Fairtrade… credentials, even if they’re a little more expensive.
  • Buying less saves time, some of which I use to contact retailers to understand their supply chain and encourage them to make changes.
  • I try to invest in local and satisfying jobs for real people. E.g. as I don’t spend a fortune on unnecessary cleaning products, clothes or gadgets, I can afford to take music lessons or go to a yoga class in the church hall, treat myself to the occasional seasonal bouquet from a local florist, support charities that perform essential work not provided by the state…
  • When indulging in the occasional luxury or treat, I look to do so in ways that support individuals and their local, independent supply chains. There are many ways to do so these days! E.g. by sourcing carefully produced local ingredients, commissioning a quality product from a skilled artisan, co-financing the publication of a book (e.g. with Unbound), backing a project (e.g. through Kickstarter) that focusses on skills and processes as much as it does on the end product.
Luxuries: these skeins are making a cardigan for me but also supports a small, independent businesses across a supply chain

Little luxuries: the wool for my new cardie helps support a designer and the people in her supply chain

I suppose the key, whether we’re looking to avoid waste or support a socially useful economy, is to exercise real choice by selecting exactly which resources we allow to flow through our lives rather than accepting anything and everything like disempowered automata.


(1) Statistics taken from Love Food, Hate Waste.

(2) Image taken from Free Vintage Posters.

(3) Recycling aluminium saves up to 95% of the energy need to produce new aluminium. Such are the cost-benefits of recycling this material that 75% of aluminium ever made is still in use today. (Statistics taken from WRAP).

(4) Image taken from the Energy Saving Trust blog.

Choice and identity

September 15, 2014 § 10 Comments

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge

We’re over halfway through the year so an update on my second year of the Wardrobe Wartime Challenge is long overdue. In the last five months there has been some making from scratch, some making do, a bout of rigorous moth control and, yes, even a few new purchases. All have been focussed on maintenance and replenishment and all have reinforced my views about the modern obsession with choice, or rather the fallacy of choice.

Readers of this blog may have realised that I talk about clothes and wardrobe but never fashion. There is a reason for this. Fashion has a lot to do with economics and a little to do with our desire for identity but nothing to do with keeping ourselves clothed and even less with us feeling truly good about how we look.

The fashion industry, like so much of our growth-based economy, is driven by the need to keep the consumer engine turning, whether we need new products or not. Every season, or nowadays every few weeks, retailers churn out another garment only slightly different from previous ones to induce us to keep buying. Nobody seems to bat an eyelid at minor variations on a theme being heralded as the latest must-have products. Questioning this is almost heresy in an age of supposedly endless consumer choice!

Self-imposed rationing, however, highlights how little choice we actually have or rather where our real choices lie.

The only way wardrobe rationing works over a prolonged period is by knowing your style, building a capsule wardrobe around quality products and satisfying the occasional whim by making your own or trawling through second hand shops. All of this involves choices but not the type that retailers claim we have.

On the one hand, it very soon becomes obvious that for all the frocks, trousers or shoes on offer, what I’m really looking for is not actually available as it is not ‘on trend’ this particular season. On the other hand, I have the choice to ignore the ephemeral styles that will not work with my capsule wardrobe, avoid poor quality products made in questionable conditions and decide where to spend my money. I have this luxury not because of my budget – currently very limited – but because I know what works for me and how to meet my needs and wants in other ways.

In the last few months, despite retailers offering endless lines of new clothes, I chose to buy quality yarn to knit my own ‘warm(ish) weather’ cardigan, this being the only way to replace a worn-out staple with something that works for me and meets my ethical and environmental criteria. Similarly, I chose not to buy a new pair of sensible city shoes. Instead I gave my custom to an independent cobbler so he could extend the life of my black lace-ups with a new heel and sole. And I chose to ignore cute transients styles and prints and instead bought a simple black jersey wrap dress to replace the one I’d worn to shreds, confident that this staple will create various outfits for many years.

As it takes me month to wear shoes in, re-shodding them makes more than environmental sense!

As it takes my feet months to wear shoes in, re-shodding them makes sense all round!

At no point has ignoring the endless onslaught of products felt like deprivation. Neither do I feel that my identity is undermined by not having the latest ‘en vogue’ or must-have garment.

Instead I enjoy not wasting my money on poorly constructed clothes and take delight in every moment that I don’t spend tramping around shops, picking over clothes rails or wondering what to wear in the morning. Of course, I have to devote some time (and money) to maintaining a smaller wardrobe but avoiding the fashion treadmill means I have time and pennies to invest in me and my real identity. In my case, that of a wife, gardener, cook, runner, tinkerer and maker of things, perpetual student and, of course, writer,… which brings me to some exciting news.

This summer my interest in writing and sustainable wardrobes resulted in my clothes rationing experiment being featured in Pretty Nostalgic. As the magazine’s motto is “spend wisely, waste less, appreciate more”, I am delighted that the editor of Pretty Nostalgic decided to feature the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge, and in the Goodwood Special Edition* in particular. It feels like this clothes rationing experiment has been given the perfect platform from which to inspire many others!

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge in Pretty Nostalgic IMG_0779


Coupon update

Apart from the wrap dress (7 coupons) and a handmade cardigan (2.5 coupons), I also invested in a new pair of winter boots (5 coupons) and some underwear and hoisery (7 coupons). I nearly didn’t buy the tights due to poor customer service and ended up going to another, more helpful branch.

In the summer I replaced old sandals with a pair of clogs, which in line with wartime practice are coupon free. Repairing my autumn/smart shoes avoided a new pair (5 coupons) as did unravelling a cardigan that had never really worked for me and re-using the yarn to knit a sweater (2.5 coupons). I also shortened the threadbare sleeves of an old nightie so it will last a few more years, avoiding the need for a new one (6 coupons).

Total coupons spent in 2014: 42.5 of 66
Total coupons saved by making do, mending and being a little bit ‘bloody minded’: 13.5

* Pretty Nostalgic is available online (as a subscription or as a single issue) or from selected independent bookshops in the UK.


My holiday… or why I dislike “staycation”

September 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

Mr M and I recently returned from a glorious summer holiday. We made our way to Scotland via the North East of England. A comfortable 3-hour train journey ferried us through the fertile East Midlands, up into post-industrial South Yorkshire and the vast county of North Yorkshire, past historic Durham with its brooding cathedral and onto Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

As we were travelling by rail, we used the city on the Tyne as our base for exploring the beautiful county of Northumberland (or the ancient kingdom of Bernicia).

Bridge upon bridge upon bridge... over the Tyne

Bridge upon bridge upon bridge… over the Tyne

Before we set off, we had mapped out an itinerary: Hexham, Cullercoats, the Farne Islands, Alnwick… but as always, serendipity delivers the best holidays. Before long we just travelled where the trains, weather, tide and our mood took us.

Our trip to the market town of Hexham was memorable, not so much for the Northumbrian countryside to the north and Hadrian’s Wall as for the rail journey up the Tyne Valley in a delightful old carriage, more trolley car than train. In Hexham Abbey I was captivated by the fine early gothic arches and vaults but the real treat was a set of quasi pagan carvings, including a bagpiper and harpist, tucked away behind the choir, like some medieval mason’s private joke.


A harpist: was he in the brief?

The tides did not allow us to visit Lindisfarne – oh well, an excuse for a return visit – but instead we enjoyed a glorious day exploring the coast around Alnmouth. I’m not sure what was more enjoyable, strolling from the station along fields down to the estuary, admiring the wildlife in the hedgerows, or walking along the beach and cliff edge. We lost all sense of time, so much so, that I caught the sun… in Northumberland of all places!


Buddleia (an interloper in the hedgerow) and a glorious peacock butterfly


A sandcastle fortress, the stuff of childhood dreams

After six days of random, unhurried exploration, we travelled on to Scotland. Before long the train reached Berwick-upon-Tweed, the last town in England, and then it hugged the coast for most of the journey up to Aberdeen. I may be accustomed to train travel but I still feel like a child, marveling at the scenery that whizzes past, trying to read the landscape and imagining what lives would have been like along the route generations ago. The coast of the North East and eastern Scotland certainly has enough to stir a girl’s imagination: a rocky shoreline, the great expanse of the North Sea, the occasional light house,  impressive bridges,…

Once in the granite city we travelled up the Dee Valley to Banchory for a clan gathering. Well, not really a clan gathering as I am not Scottish but a meeting of my family: siblings, spouses, a couple of friends of my parents and the newest member of the ‘clan’ – my little niece. As it happened, Mr M and I also visited old friends of his who lived nearby and as I explored the woods adjacent to their cottage, Mr M was driven round Banchory in a 1930s Austin 7. As I said, serendipity delivers the best holidays!


Heather, conifers and threatening rain clouds in the Dee Valley

Our time away was an absolute delight: beautiful countryside, interesting sites, fresh air, pleasant meals, a good mix of peace, quiet and privacy on the one hand and the company of friends and family on the other… In many ways, a perfect holiday.

On my return an acquaintance referred to my week away as a ‘staycation’, a term used in Britain since the current recession to describe holidays in the UK. I bit my tongue. I was irritated, not insulted, probably more saddened. I dislike the word intensely. It focusses on a perceived negative (i.e. that one is not travelling abroad) rather than celebrates the restorative time away from work and daily routines, the change of scenery, the journey and discoveries along the way!

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed holidays abroad in the past, after all, I’ve lived in countries where a 2-hour train journey takes you across a border. And I shall certainly travel abroad again – two of my three siblings live abroad, as may the third if Scotland votes for independence this month. But are my wanderings around the ancient Northumberland coast, my stroll up a minor Scottish hill, my discoveries of quaint carvings, peacock butterflies and sand castles… any less worthy of being called a vacation because I didn’t show a passport or get on an airplane?

Zero Waste Week: a plethora of paper

September 7, 2014 § 5 Comments

Whilst I’m doing well at minimising our ‘black bag’ waste, I have to be constantly vigilant about paper and cardboard waste. These may be recyclable but that really is only part of the solution as recycling paper is an incredibly energy, water and chemical intensive process. Much better surely to avoid unnecessary paper usage and waste in the first place. I therefore decided to increase my efforts to tackle paper waste as part of Zero Waste Week.

Tackling paper creep

Paper waste is a dual-headed beast. First there is all the paper we actually bring into our home and then there is the drip feed of unwanted paper that seeps into the house.

There are various ways to tackle the first. Reading on screen is one way to reduce paper consumption but my ophthalmologist has advised against it due to my poor eyesight. The compromise is: I read news, blogs and emails on the computer but print any academic articles or work I’m submitting to a third party on paper, double-sided of course.

Magazines are a bit of an indulgence but I keep it in check by limiting myself to a few independent magazines only and by setting a strict maximum annual magazine budget. When I’ve read and digested them, I keep a select few issues but pass most on to the local doctor’s surgery so others get the benefit of them before they are recycled (and so I get to rediscover them during my occasional appointments).

Independent magazines

Indie magazines: a hard paper indulgence to keep in check

Paper packaging may feel more virtuous than plastic wrappers but it’s still waste and will proliferate if not kept under control. Replacing cereals with home-made breakfasts and drastically cutting my tea intake has tackled the most stubborn areas of household paper waste: the coated card that biodegrades slowly. Any unavoidable card I use as list paper before popping it in the recycling bin.

And then there is the stream of junk mail… I’m taking an increasingly tough stance with this paper. I am forever unsubscribing to mailing lists and re-registering with Mailing Preference Service to curb the flow of unsolicited post. I’ve also taken to returning unrequested mail to sender on the basis that companies will not stop bombarding us with unnecessary waste until we make them bear the cost and hassle of disposing of such waste.

On-site reuse and recycling

Of the paper waste that remains or is unavoidable, I try to find as many ways as possible to reuse it on-site before I recycle it.

Toilet roll holders and egg cartons end up in the compost bin, directly or indirectly, providing it with extra ‘brown’ material. In the winter and spring I use the former as pots for seed sowing and the latter for chitting potatoes before adding them to the compost heap. At other times of the year, I rip them up and pop them straight in the bokashi or compost bin.

Flour and sugar bags also feed the compost but not before I have used them as tin liners for cakes or biscuits. Lining the base of a storage tin means less greasy or crumbly residue, which saves me time and soap when washing up.

If I receive anything in wrapping paper, tissue paper or a brown paper bag, I unwrap it very carefully, straighten out the paper and store it for further use. This may sound dreadfully thrifty but the paper comes in handy when wrapping flowers, herbs or food that I take along to dinner parties and brown bags make good parcel paper. Also, as most (young) children just rip the paper off presents, it seems ridiculous not to use recycled wrapping paper for their gifts.

As a teenager I was a prolific letter writer and to save pennies, I made envelopes out of attractive pages I ripped out of magazines. I have resuscitated this practice, using the quality paper used by indie magazines or certain catalogues.

Finally, I occasionally recycle paper by using it to make my own. I have no plans to produce industrial quantities of vellum but I do like to make heavy old-school sheets for creative projects or little gifts. If you like to try your hand at making your own paper, this webpage provides detailed instructions. Apart from being fun, I experienced first-hand just how water intense paper-making is (whether on a small or industrial scale), which has made me even more mindful of not wasting paper.

An improvised deckle

An improvised deckle


Paper sheets before pressing

I suspect my net paper waste will always exceed zero but with a bit of discipline and a smattering of creativity I’m finding ways to reduce the amount of paper that goes to off-site recycling.

Please do share your suggestions on how to keep paper waste at bay or reuse waste paper in the comments box below.


Additional paper making tips and suggestions 
  • In the “everything is a resource” spirit I made a deckle by popping a picture frame on a sheet of sinamay straw and a wire cooling rack and using heavy-duty elastic bands to keep them together.
  • I add a few drops of tea tree oil to the soaking water as it is mildly antiseptic and prevents smells if you leave the paper to soak overnight.
  • If you use a blender to pulp the paper, remember to sharpen the blades regularly with a steel.
  • If you plan to use fountain pens, felts or water-based paints, you’ll need to add liquid starch. You can buy this in the cleaning supplies aisle or better still mix up your own using water and cornflour!
  • To save energy, leave paper to dry in the sun if possible.
  • Don’t poor any remaining pulp down the sink. Use a sieve to drain it off. Leave it to dry thoroughly and then add it to the compost or your paper recycling bin.
  • To avoid frustration start by making small sheets until you get the hang of it.
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  • Copyright

    Unless indicated to the contrary, all texts and photos are copyright of MegandGosia.

    Where I include photos or artwork I give credit (where known) and link to the original source.

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