Zero Week Waste: reflections and perspectives

September 18, 2014 § 4 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 § 9 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 § 3 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.

Zero Waste Week: food waste or wasted ingredients?

September 5, 2014 § 7 Comments

Food waste is a pet hate of mine. Each year households in the UK waste 7 million tonnes of food and drink. Half of that doesn’t even make it to the plate but goes straight into the bin, ending up in landfill or the incinerator. Let’s not mince words here: this is a shocking waste, not only of money* but of all the energy, water, soil, nutrients and labour that go into growing that food.

Stunning statistics from Love Food Hate Waste

Shocking statistics from Love Food Hate Waste

In my mind, most food waste is actually a waste of good ingredients. This is partly because I grew up with a mother who viewed food waste as a moral issue but also because I have always loved cooking. As such, I can draw on an armoury of skills, recipes and practices. Very few of these are new or groundbreaking but they do the trick and they are very easy to pick up. Here is a selection.

Planning and pragmatism

Not buying more than I need is the best way to avoid waste. With the food and marketing industries colluding to persuade us we need more, this is obviously easier said than done so I arm myself with a simple but effective system: lists.

At the weekend I draw up a list of meals for the week before writing out the grocery list. At the planning stage I think about what the leftovers might be, how long these will last and how they might be reinvented as part of another meal to save me time. For example, if I plan to serve a niçoise salad, I count on there being vegetables left that I can use in a quick ratatouille or pasta bake. Or if we’re having lamb on Sunday with tzatziki, I might make falafel on Monday to use up the dip and a spicy lamb pilaf on Tuesday with any meat scraps. To the extent possible, I also coordinate these quick, leftover meals with days when I know we’ll be home late.

I actually go further and keep a running list of homemade jams, pickles and chutneys on the inside of the pantry door so I know, at a glance, what supplies I have above eye level. I keep a similar list on the freezer door, so leftovers do not disappear in there.

Overstocked pantries often lead to food waste. Once again, marketers don’t make life easy. There is a plethora of products where once there might have been one and before we know it our larders are crammed with five types of flours, six different grains, stock cubes in every shape, size and flavour, and a lifetime’s supply of condiments.

Being pragmatic about what I regularly cook is the best way to avoid unnecessary supplies that will only end up in the bin. As it happens, I do have a well-stocked baking cupboard as I regularly bake. If, however, you’re only an occasional baker, a pack of plain flour will cover most needs: pastry, pancakes, scones, cakes and biscuits as well as thickening sauces and coating stewing meat. If the recipe calls for self-raising flour, just stir in a teaspoon of baking powder** for every 100 g of flour (plus any additional baking powder specified in the recipe).

Examples of product creation. A bag of plain flour and bread flour meets most needs.

Examples of unnecessary product creation. Simple plain flour and a bag of strong bread flour meet most needs.***

A range of dressings and flavoured oils may seem like a good idea in the shop but can languish in fridge and cupboard. Instead, invest in olive oil, vinegar, mustard, lemons and a few herbs so you can mix up a variety of dressings as necessary in an old jam jar. Or pour some olive oil in a spare bottle and pop a sprig of homegrown rosemary in to infuse your own oil.

Waste or ingredient?

Soup, stew and ratatouille may seem like basic dishes but each is a good way to turn tired or leftover vegetables into tasty, nutritious and affordable meals. Master a basic short crust pastry (flour, fat, a pinch of salt and a little water) and a stew becomes a hearty pie. Or make pasties out of ratatouille or a reduced stew.

Crumbles and pies are super for using up fruit and despite their simplicity, make delicious puddings. Or stew the fruit and serve it with pancakes (whether scotch pancakes or French crêpes). Add a dash of alcohol or a pinch of mixed spice for an interesting twist.

Fruit: tasty fresh but even tastier in a crumble

Fruit: tasty fresh but even tastier in a crumble

As somebody who likes to view everything as a resource, I love making stocks. There is something visceral about boiling up the bones and scraps after a roast chicken with a few roots and a bay leaf. If you are new to making stocks, check out Anne-Marie Bonneau (aka @Zerowastechef) instructions for a nutritious bone broth!

Waste-based treats and a couple of improbable ones

To prove that avoiding food waste does not mean cutting out luxuries, here are a few ideas of how to turn leftovers or ‘food waste’ into tasty treats.

Moreish potato peels – Next time you peel potatoes, turn the peel into a savoury treat. Drizzle the skins with olive oil and crumble sea salt over them. Add herbs or spices if you wish. Fry them in a pan, adding olive oil as necessary to stop them sticking. Or if you have the oven on anyway, bake them for a healthier version.

Candied peel – This sweet gets a bad name because of the bland tubs sold in the supermarket. Homemade candied peel, however, is a different beast. So, next time you squeeze fresh orange juice or make a fruit salad, try this recipe for an indulgent grown-up treat. Allow plenty of drying time but once dried it will keep for several weeks, if of course it lasts that long! You can even dip the sweets in black chocolate and serve them as a luxurious petit four.

Stale biscuits – Don’t throw away tired or stale digestives, gingernuts, hobnobs… Instead turn them into desserts that look and taste much better than they have any right to. Crush the biscuits in a sealable bag with a rolling pin (or a pan). Cover the bottom of a baking tin, ramekins or glasses with the crumbs and press them down. Add a layer of cream, custard or mascarpone and then fresh berries or cooled stewed plums or apricots (you can even stew dried ones!). Chill in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Even the most improbably forms of food waste can be used to good effect. I spotted these two ideas this week:

Please do share any tips or suggestions you have for turning food waste into ingredients for tasty meals in the comments box below.


* Estimates suggests that most householders could save £470 per year if they tackled food waste, more if they have children. All figures from Love Food Hate Waste.

** Not bicarbonate of soda (baking soda).

*** This photo is used by way of an example only. I’m not suggesting that this retailer is the only supermarket to indulge in such unnecessary product creation.


Zero Waste Week: on personal cleanliness and waste

September 3, 2014 § 15 Comments

Having kicked off Zero Waste Week with some ideas on how to slim down cleaning supplies to cut out unnecessary waste, I’m now turning my attention to how to stay fresh and dainty with minimal waste. I know that some people can get quite touchy about this subject. After all, most of us dread being a social pariah due to a lack of personal hygiene and look to toiletries to avoid this. And others are just very fond of ‘attractive’ bottles full of lotions and potions and wince at the suggestion of foregoing these little luxuries.

Before I go on I should stress three things:

  • I’m no hippie or tomboy. I like to look well-groomed, a little polished even;
  • many of my friends, even younger ones, are slightly envious of my complexion; and
  • my super stylish friend R. was so amazed at my personal care products and practices that she encouraged me to share them.

As with cleaning products, my first step is to cut out unnecessary products, pretty packages or not. This is a lot easier when you consider that most toiletries, even many with “natural” blazoned across them, are derived from crude oil. I suspect using them once in a blue moon will not do too much harm but every day for decades…? I’d rather not risk it.

As with cleaning products, there are many recipes on the Internet for waste-free home-made toiletries, but I prefer to stick with single or minimal ingredients wherever possible: a basic soap, a gentle astringent, a quality oil, a mild abrasive and a natural deodorant. So what do I actually use?

I have never been a fan of liquid face or body washes. They always left my skin feeling itchy, sometimes even burnt. Instead I use luke warm water and simple olive oil (also known as castile soap). This is one of the oldest types of soap, made from olive oil, lye and water.* Generally these no-nonsense traditional soaps are available with minimal packaging, if any.

To moisturise I use plant oil. As I’m allergic to nuts, I avoid almond oil, which is light, readily available and affordable. Instead I rely on apricot oil, but others like argan or jojoba oil are equally good. There is no need to mix the oil into a concoction. Just apply a few drops to damp skin and rub it in. I use it on my body and face. I even dab a single drop on my eyelids in the evening as it removes make-up and moisturises at the same time! These types of oil are usually sold in dark bottles, which I re-use as bud vases.

After washing my face in the evening, I dab it with distilled witch hazel. This mild astringent has a soothing effect and a calming smell, which is super after a day in London’s polluted air. Because I am not completely ascetic, I also have a bottle of rose water for use on days when London has been particularly grinding. Once again, the only packaging is a glass bottle (and cap) that I either re-use or recycle.

Simple luxuries for the skin

Simple luxuries for the skin

Exfoliating products tend to annoy me, especially the overly packaged ones that contain plastic microbeads, which disappear down the plug hole and end up in marine and river animals. Of all the products sold, these are probably the most unnecessary as there are many natural and/or waste-free ways to exfoliate. I use half a teaspoon of pinhead oatmeal mixed with luke warm water on my face, soap and a loofah for my body and a pumice stone on my feet. As I’m a real geek, I also put an old tea strainer in the sink when exfoliating my face to catch the waste oatmeal.

For deodorant I use an alum crystal. I know they don’t work for everybody** but I have used a crystal for years and it stands up well, even when I am running or working out. Some crystals are sold loose, others come in a plastic container but as a single stone easily lasts three years, the packaging waste is minimal.

My other treatments and unguents are equally simple or come from the pantry or garden.

I prefer showers to baths but on the few occasions I soak my bones, I either use a few drops of lavender essential oil (a natural remedy for scalds and burns) or tie a few springs of rosemary under the tap to release its heady scent and oils. In the winter, when my skin is at its driest, I might drop a tablespoon of fine pinhead oatmeal in the bath to sooth my skin. Once again, I use the tea strainer when emptying the bath. If I were a more regular bather, I would probably make an oatmeal sachet for the bath.

Simple products with many uses

Simple products with many uses

On a summer’s morning, I rub a segment of lemon over my legs and arms after showering to help repel mosquitos. (Obviously, don’t do this if you have just shaved your legs!) And tea bags or slices of cucumbers on the eyes are a classic but they do ease tired, puffy eyes as they are slightly astringent.

My standard hair wash routine is similarly waste-light… but that’s a tale for another occasion!

Please do share your tips for waste-free/-light personal care in the comment box below.


A quick word about water

No amount of toiletries makes up for a lack of hydration so I drink a lot of water! I also shower in luke warm, rather than hot, water as it is kinder on the skin. If, however, you prefer a steaming hot bath or shower, don’t waste the steam! Make sure you hang any clothes that need ironing in the bathroom and iron them after bathing. This will save you having to use the steam function on the iron, which is very energy and water intensive, and will make the garments easier to iron!

* I always check labels to avoid bars containing palm oil. There is nothing wrong with this product per se but the ever greater ‘demand’ for this oil has led to deforestation.

** See @zerowastechef’s recipe for a minimal waste natural deodorant.

Zero Waste Week: on cleaning & waste

September 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

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.



Since writing this post, I have learnt that the formidable @jackiemania has started to knit her own hand towels as well as her wash clothes in her effort to achieve the quality product she used to know. This may not seem like a waste issue but as quality is inextricably linked to waste, it most definitely is. I wish more of us were like this lady in our pursuit of quality in the simple products to ensure a lifetime of pleasure as well as a lot less waste!


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.

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