The battle of the bags

I have been seeing a lot recently about the relative merits of paper vs plastic. Having been alerted to the huge issues with plastic pollution, the general public seems to be convinced that wholesale conversion to paper or cardboard packaging is the answer. Purely from the perspective of end-of-life disposal, this is a perfectly logical switch because paper is biodegradable and plastic isn’t. But life isn’t really that simple, is it?

There are various studies which show that the carbon footprint of a plastic bag is way smaller than a paper bag, For example, a report published by the UK Environment Agency in 2011 examined a variety of types os shopping bags:

• a conventional, lightweight carrier made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE)

• a paper carrier;

• a “bag for life” made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE);

• a heavier more durable bag, often with stiffening inserts made from non woven polypropylene (PP); and

• a cotton bag

And here is a summary of some of their results:2019-06-23Source: Environment Agency (2011) Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006

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Paper vs Cotton

As you can see, according to this data, you have to use a paper bag three times and a cotton bag 131 times for them to have the same ‘global warming potential’ as a ‘normal’ plastic carrier bag used just once. Of course, there are all sorts of complicating factors – if you make a cotton bag out of scraps rather than virgin fabric, then that’s an entirely different matter. Indeed, using waste fabric to make bags could probably be considered to have an overall positive impact on the environment rather than a negative one. But what this does show, is that paper bags may not be the a great solution, and it doesn’t begin to take into consideration what a polluting process paper production can be (you can read about the environmental impact of paper here).

However, the data in the Environment Agency Report are a few years out of date and SNS (Nordic Forest Research) recently published a report outlining the climate benefits of forests. It turns out that actively growing young trees assimilate much more carbon than mature trees, so managed forests from which timber is extracted do more to reduce atmospheric carbon than old forests. There are other issues related to conservation and biodiversity, but the fact remains that it’s good to use wood.

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Plastic or not?

Some of the manufacturers, processors and producers who need to use some form of packaging do seem to be exploring different options. After all, there are all sorts of materials available and new technology is delivering various solutions with, apparently, better environmental credentials. For example, for a while now I’ve been buying my coffee from a small company that supports small producers and uses no plastic in their packaging. Last month, however, the coffee arrived not in a paper pack, but in something that looked like plastic. Why? Well, The Roasting House explained their change as follows:

Those of you who have ground coffee will have been receiving the Natureflex packaging for a while now but if you have whole bean it may come as a shock when you get the package so first of all I want to reassure you that it’s no plastic!

We use Natureflex for our ground coffee as it preserves the oils in the coffee and keeps it fresher. The whole bean coffee doesn’t lose freshness as quickly so we’ve sent it in paper for a while for you to transfer to your own air tight container. However we’re starting to move more towards using the Natureflex and less paper in our sister business Plastic Free Pantry. It provides a good air and moisture barrier and is less prone to breakages. But crucially it has a lower carbon impact than paper. The carbon impact of production for the unlined type of Natureflex that we use is lower than plastic, and the manufacturers then use off-setting to make it carbon neutral.

It is compostable in home conditions and will break down in soil and marine environments (although obviously don’t chuck it in the sea or litter it!). If you have a compost bin, it will break down in 12-16 weeks. Alternatively you can shred it and bury it in your garden. If you can’t compost it yourself, you can return it to us for refilling or composting.

So, it turns out that doing the right thing is complicated and that avoiding one problem (e.g. plastic pollution) can lead to another (e.g. carbon dioxide emissions). What we really need is institutional change in terms of reducing the use of ALL resources and I encourage you to lobby manufacturers, retailers and politicians to this end, but it’s also good to take personal responsibility, so reuse what you already have (whatever it’s made of) and REFUSE grocery/produce bags wherever possible.

 

Refuse

In my recent post mentioning the three Rs, Textiledreamer reminded me about adding “refuse” to the beginning… a great idea as it’s best not to have that thing you don’t need in the first place. Then, as I was mulling over the concept, it dawned on me that there are two possible meanings in this context:

refuse (noun and adjective) Anything that is rejected, discarded, or thrown away; rubbish, waste, residue; household waste. The earliest citation in the OED is from around 1390.

refuse (verb) To decline to do something or to reject . The earliest citation in the OED is from around 1325.

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historically, we regarded waste (refuse) as a resource… and made beautiful things from it

So we’ve been generating refuse and refusing stuff for a long time! Of course, in terms of the Rs, we are thinking of the latter, but it’s important for us to think about refuse in terms of waste or garbage too. But, let’s not accept the idea that everything we’ve finished with or discarded has reached the end of its life. You only need to visit the monthly ScrapHappy posts to see what creative people are doing with what might be otherwise consigned to the “refuse” (the noun). In fact, perhaps we should refuse (verb) the idea of refuse (noun) and instead both avoid producing it by making long-lived, repairable items, and then consider any item that has reached the end of its life as a resource, available to be repurposed or, if all else fails, recycled.

I think that ScrapHappy Day (15th of the month for those of you who don’t already know) is my favourite blog-reading day. I love seeing the creativity, lateral thinking and sheer effort that all of you who participate put into your projects each month. I encourage any of you who don’t currently join in to consider doing so – whatever material you use, in fact the more diversity the better. If you do want to join in, get in touch with Kate over at Tall Tales from Chiconia and she will add you to the list of participants and send you a reminder a few days before the date that posts are due.

In the meantime, tell me how you are cutting down on refuse and what you are refusing.

We need to talk about plastic

Today I want to discuss plastic… it’s in the news a lot at the moment and it is always portrayed as being evil. Well, I want to say that I disagree. Please stick with me on this and I’ll explain why I’m worried about the huge number of “plastic-free [insert town name here]” initiatives that are springing up and the way that plastic is presented currently in the media.

Language is very important, what we call things affects the way we perceive them. Call it “global warming” and the immediate image (in the UK at least) is nicer summers; call it “climate change” and that just means things are going to be different, and, after all, we all know that “a change is as good as a rest”; but call it “catastrophic climate breakdown” and there are no comfortable images to hide behind. See what I mean?

The limery… a good use of plastic?

And so to “plastic-free” towns and cities. I know this term has been coined because it’s short and snappy, but it’s also very misleading. Think what your town would be without any plastic; think what your home would be without plastic, First, all my windows would fall out, I wouldn’t be writing this because I wouldn’t have a computer; my sewing machine (mainly metal) wouldn’t have any knobs; the limery wouldn’t exist… I could go on, but you get the drift. The idea of being plastic-free, just doesn’t make sense in our modern world. What we really need to do is stop using plastic indiscriminately and unnecessarily. I don’t even mean that we should abandon single-use plastics, because there are cases where they do much more good than harm: minimising food waste, for example.

However, there are many, many uses of plastic (and other materials) that are completely unnecessary. Ages ago I wrote a post about buying a new set of earphones and the amount of packaging (plastic and card); once unwrapped I was able to fit the entire contents into a matchbox although the original pack was measured 13 x 14 x 4.2cm. Many items that don’t need any packaging at all (cauliflowers, for example) come surrounded by it and many items that are in a container (e.g. a bottle) have some additional card or plastic surrounding them. Lets cut down on such unnecessary use of any materials, plastic or otherwise.

Lots of products come with a plastic “tool” in every pack – balls for dispensing laundry liquid in the washing machine, for example, or scoops in tubs of stain remover. In all likelihood, the ball for laundry liquid will last hundreds of washes and certainly doesn’t need replacing with every bottle. These unnecessary items are bound to end up being discarded because, even if you can think of an alternative use for a few of them, there is a limit. So, they end up in landfill or going to be recycled.

And, of course, there are things that we really should just stop making because they are completely unnecessary and highly damaging to the environment. My greatest irritation in this respect is balloons – especially those filled with helium, a rare and precious element in itself. And the idea of deliberately releasing ballons at events makes me so cross – we might as well go and chuck our plastic waste in the local river.

However, I still think plastic is a good thing when used wisely. In addition, we have a lot of the stuff already around and simply stopping using plastic items does not address this fact. I occasionally read of people discarding all their plastic containers in favour of glass and metal in the kitchen and I think of all the waste being created. There are issues with storing food in plastic (see, for example the efsa information on Bisphenol A, a chemical found in many plastic food containers and linings of food containers such as steel cans), but these can, to some extent, be mitigated by enclosing the food in another wrapper before putting it into the plastic container and also ensuring that you never heat food in the microwave in plastic containers. As with most things, the best way to reduce your impact on the environment is to keep using what you have and not just throw it away and buy something that’s marketed as being more environmentally friendly (hello “greenwash”).

But, what about all that plastic that we are finished with? What about all that plastic that’s polluting our seas and land? Well, here’s the thing: it already exists and we need to think very carefully about how we deal with it. Currently, far too much plastic is simply discarded – being complacent because it goes in the recycling bin is not the answer. Recycling is not the magic solution we would like to imagine, and recycling only works for certain types of plastic under certain circumstances. Similarly, adopting the attitude that all plastic is evil and to be shunned is not helpful. What we need is a sensible approach to dealing with the plastic that has come to the end of its useful life and to that end, we need to use it again, Without a market for recycled plastic products, there is no incentive to do anything other than discard it. So, if you want to buy something made of plastic, have a look to see if there’s a recycled version and, if not, contact the manufacturers and tell them you want to see one.

Some of the big pots already in use for growing peas and beans

Recently I wanted to get some large pots to increase our available growing space. Now, whilst terracotta pots look good, they are heavy and cumbersome to move, especially when full of compost and containing a plant. I was, therefore, delighted to find some 35 litre pots, with handles and made of recycled plastic. It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing we should be using recycled plastic for – they are destined to have a long and productive life and deliver many years of vegetable-growing.

So, yet again we return to the 3Rs, in order of priority: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

REDUCE: if we don’t need it, let’s not produce it in the first place.

REUSE: once we have an item, let’s get the maximum use possible out of it – for its original purpose or for something new. Single-use items are bad for the environment and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary (which is sometimes the case… let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water).

RECYCLE: when we’ve had the maximum possible use out of a particular item, let’s recycle the materials and treat them as a valuable resource.

And this is not just the responsibility of individuals – this is something we have to demand from producers and politicians. So, as well as RRR, do some writing. I encourage you to tell manufacturers and retailers what you want: let them know that simply substituting one thing for another is not good enough: we want to see a reduction in packaging, we want to be able to have containers refilled, for example. In addition, let’s try to force the issue by changing the law – write to your elected representatives.

So, what plastic items would you ban? What alternatives would you prefer? And who is responsible?

My health or the planet’s?

The other day I had an e-mail from Patricia with the possible text for a blog post. Here is what she wrote:

IMGP6953I was tempted to call this Scrap Unhappy, but will refrain and remain positive, but I am concerned with medical waste.  Not on the huge hospital scale, but my own small domestic waste from the first aid box and prescription and non-prescription drugs.

I just finished a bottle of medicine and was rinsing out the bottle recalling a time when medicine bottles were returned to the chemist for re-use. Now that is impossible, but I can recycle both the glass bottle and the hard plastic top in my council doorstep collection. But that’s about all that is recyclable in my home pharmacy.

At the beginning of this year I went through my first aid box, not a job I’d done before and I’m ashamed at how many out of date items I found and more to the point of this blog, disturbed by how much plastic was in there. Long gone are the days when first aid meant linen bandages and cotton wool, lint and little gold safety pins. Tubes of antiseptic and cream for insect bites etc all needed replacing and although I couldn’t stick to my preferred brands, which all came in plastic,  I was happy to find how many products were available in metal tubes. I found Weleda especially helpful and their staff were as knowledgeable about their packaging as their products. Their package arrived in paper, card and potato starch based pellets that would bring a smile to the sternest Snail.  But plasters – what are they? Micropore? What is it? How are they to be disposed? When they have been used on wounds, I feel the only way that meets both health and safety demands of disposal is burning, but otherwise? And what of those bits that come off plasters?  Has anyone moved away from these plasters in pursuit of something greener?

However the real trouble started when I looked at my prescription and non-prescription tablets. They all come in blister packs. As far as I can tell none of them, not even a simple aspirin or antacid is available in a bottle. And what are blister packs? It seems as if there is no requirement for medicines to contain information about safe disposal beyond the safe disposal i.e. return to the pharmacy, of the drugs themselves. I once gardened for a large community and a member of that community took her daily walk after lunch around the grounds. She took with her, her daily pill and one could follow her progress by the tiny metallic plastic top that had come from the blister packed pill. Now I guess we could make our way across the planet following this and other home medicine spoor.

Has anyone else tried to ‘green up’ their home remedies? I’d love to hear from you or can you please point me to others addressing this.

What an interesting post I thought… I’ll put that up later in the week… and then I got toothache…

… not just an irritating ache, but real, powerful pain that had me scurrying for strong painkillers and a hot water bottle and then, as quickly as possible, to the dentist, followed by the pharmacy, where Patricia’s words came back to me.

IMGP6956So, here I am this evening, still with my hot water bottle, but also with various types of medication all in an abundance of packaging. Turns out that I most likely have a gum infection, so there are antibiotics (blister pack/cardboard box), then I needed strong painkillers (blister pack/cardboard box) and interdental brushes (plastic and cardboard packaging plus their plastic handles and bristles) and antiseptic mouthwash (plastic bottle).

Well, there go my environmental credentials as soon as I have a medical problem. Perhaps there are alternatives to some of these products that have less or more environmentally friendly packaging, but when you are literally crying with pain, it’s not the time to seek them out.

And I’m not the only one in our household with dental issues. Daisy has rather poor teeth. I do clean them with a brush (plastic) and doggy toothpaste (hurrah! metal tube), but she also has a tooth cleaning chew every day and these come in a box with several plastic packs each containing a few chews. However, I have recently found an alternative. It is possible to buy unpackaged dental health chews from our local big chain pet shop, who simply put an elastic band around them. Next time I buy some, I will take my own container so they can go straight in that.

I genuinely understand why it is considered best practice to put tablets into blister packs, but I can’t help feeling that if we trust our pharmacists to dispense the correct drugs, we could perhaps trust them to put those drugs in a bottle for us too. And certainly over-the-counter medication could easily be sold in sealed, returnable bottles, as used to be the case.

Anyway, I’m now going to take some of those strong painkillers, so you may not get any sense out of me for a while…

Brown paper packages tied up with string

… or secured with paper parcel tape… these are two of my favourite things.

OK, I know it was only the string that appeared in the song, but I was truly delighted when two parcels arrived through the post yesterday that were wrapped without plastic tape.

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Spot the plastic… oh, there isn’t any

The first was from the All Natural Soap Company – I’ve mentioned them before, because they work very diligently to avoid the use of plastic and to produce their soap ethically; for example, they don’t use any palm oil. They use cardboard boxes for posting things out and seal them using paper parcel tape. The individual bars of soap come wrapped in paper or in cardboard boxes and they use biodegradable packing peanuts (made of corn starch, I think) to stop everything rattling about – I always put these in the compost, where they disappear as soon as they get wet. I’m always happy to be able to support businesses who make so much effort. It’s also worth remembering that soap/shampoo bars are much better than liquid soap/shampoo or shower gel because soap does not require water to be transported unnecessarily with it.

The second parcel was sent by my friend Lizzie and she had created a beautiful string-wrapped package. Not only was there no plastic tape, but the brown paper and string can be entirely reused for sending something to someone else. And inside was some rather special fabric, some ribbon and a crochet dishcloth (for Mr Snail to use whilst he continues to seek out the perfect eco-washing up brush). I’ve already got an idea what I’m going to do with the fabric… I just need to find the time.

Away

In 1856, the Metropolitan Board of Works was established in London and it appointed Joseph Bazalgette as its chief engineer. As a result, Bazalgette embarked on his greatest work: designing and overseeing the construction of the sewer network in London, which effectively removed the threat of cholera and greatly improved the health of London residents and the general environment of the city. With immense foresight, Bazalgette estimated the size of sewers required and then doubled it, meaning that his original system is still coping with the population of the capital today. Nevertheless, his sewers still just diverted waste away and raw sewage was collected in tanks, the contents of which were discharged directly into the Thames a little way downstream at high tide. It wasn’t until 1900 (nine years after Bazalgette’s death) that sewage treatment works were constructed to deal with the outflow.

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Map of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette 1858-1870 (Rudolf Hering, 1882 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am in awe of this amazing feat of engineering, but I’m also aware that it is the physical embodiment of Victorian values: the earth was created to serve man and human beings had a god-given right to use natural resources no matter the consequences to nature (which was also there for the benefit of mankind). And so, human waste was neatly and efficiently removed from sight (and smell), improving the lot of those in the city, but actually delivering the source of the problem to another location. Even during Bazalgette’s time, there were, apparently, those who objected to the fact that a valuable resource was simply being pumped into the Thames rather than collected and used for growing crops.

I wonder, therefore, what a different world we might inhabit had Joseph Bazalgette taken a different approach. What if he had valued this resource rather than simply seeing the (admittedly huge) problem? I’m not sure what sort of solution he might have come up with, but that change in perception in the nineteenth century might have seen modern homes not flushing fertility ‘away’, but having their own sources of compost production. Or maybe ‘away’ would have been to digesters or power plants or fertiliser factories.

There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere. Annie Leonard

Soap and flannel*

by Patricia Collinspat soapAn American friend sent me these lovely soaps for Christmas and I’m doing my best to work my way through them because of the packaging.  My mother would not be pleased. She had far more patience and self control and would keep soap, no matter how pretty or enticing, in our clothes drawers for months before thinking of using them. This not only scented the clothes, but apparently hardened the soap so that it would ‘go further’ when finally put into use. Has anyone else come across this trick? Usually I still save soap before use, but is there science to prove saved soap goes further?

The reason I’m racing through these soaps is the packaging! Each one is wrapped in a pretty piece of pure cotton. The wrapping is secured with two small stitches so that it comes undone easily, and I just can’t wait to make something of these pretty pieces of cloth. Each one is  7×5.5 inches – I still sew Imperial. For those who don’t that’s 17.5x14cm and I will have five pieces. Any thoughts on what to make? Having complained of poor packaging on numerous occasions, I just can’t wait to get my hands on this lot.

PS This isn’t an ad for the soaps, but anyone interested can see from the wrapper who makes  and sells them via the internet.

-oOo-

* Well, fabric, really

 

Nicely packaged

by Patricia Collins

Back in the Brownies, I learned to tie a parcel.  One evening we trooped into the church hall with brown paper (brought from home and saved from the last parcel that arrived in the house) and string. After the toadstool gathering, the salute and the promise, we set to on empty cereal packets and shoe boxes with just that brown paper and string, a slip knot, round turns, half hitches and reef knots to finish off.  Oh and scissors – proper sharp scissors and 20 little girls bursting with excitement. At the end of the evening we handed in the scissors and took our parcels home with the reminder to untie them carefully and save the paper and string ‘for next time’. This was the Health and Safety and environmental thinking of the day!

A delivery this week – ALL the plastic you can see is tape

I can still tie a neat parcel, but today I’m back at my desk drawer and pondering the problem of sellotape.  For those outside of England – Scotch tape, sticky tape, plastic adhesive tape. And there you have it.  It’s taken me almost all my post-Brownie years to realise that Sellotape is plastic and in that time I have created a much loved and appreciated collection: double sided tape, parcel tape, masking tape, electrical tape and all in several different widths. All of it plastic, all of it non-biodegradable, all of it potentially harmful to our environment.

It’s New Year and I’m sure I’m not the only one full of good resolutions, but what to do? Return to Brownie skills? Get rid of the collection and how? Or use up this store? 

  • don’t use sellotape to re-seal used envelopes etc. Gummed paper labels and staples do this job well
  • don’t use it to mend books or other paper-based documents. It’s the archivist’s pet hate as it leaves stains and weaknesses that can never be made good . gummed brown paper works well inside book jackets or a very thin piece of bandage pasted on pages
  • don’t make sellotape the first choice- think before reaching for the roll of sticky tape – can the job be done another way?

Are there other ways of lessening my environmental impact? I’d welcome your suggestions. Meantime I’ll remember that Brownie promise ‘do your best’

-oOo-

The Snail’s solution

This thought-provoking post from Patricia arrived on the same day that I received the parcel in the photograph above, from a “green” grocery store. All that plastic tape made me wince. I carefully peeled it off and the cardboard went into the compost, but the tape has to go to landfill, I think. When I am packing a parcel myself, I use paper parcel tape and, increasingly, I see that parcels arrive sealed with this. And, of course, there are marvellous companies who ensure that all their packaging is plastic-fee: All Natural Soap Company and Roasting House are two who are helping me keep my consumption of single-use plastics down, although I know how privileged I am to be in a position to make these choices.

The mighty pen

by Patricia Collins

At the risk of sounding like a fossil, I’ll tell you that I learned to write with a slate and slate key, progressed to a pencil and on to a dip pen i.e. a wooden holder with a changeable steel nib that was dipped in the inkwell that was set into the corner of my school desk and replenished every week by the ink monitor. With a few adventures on the side with chalks, powder paints and wax crayons, this took me happily to the 11+ and the ritual fountain pen.

The fountain pen had a rubber bladder that was re-filled with ink, but it was made of a hard plastic casing and was, as I see now, my first non biodegradable writing instrument. When work for O-Levels commenced, we all yearned for Rapidographs. Wonderful tools for drawing maps and graphs that were like writing with hypodermic needles. I still have mine and see that though it too was re-fillable, it has a clear plastic ink reservoir.

‘Biros’ were considered to be detrimental to our handwriting and were strictly forbidden until the Sixth Form. My first biro was precious; it had a metal casing and was refuelled by purchasing a metal cartridge of ink.

And now – biros arrive in the post as ‘free’ gifts from charities either urging me to support their work or to thank me for supporting their work, arrive as promotional Christmas gifts from local businesses. They also seem to have a life of their own, accumulating in my desk drawer and shopping bag from I know not where.

Many of the charities send pre-paid envelopes with their gifts, so it’s an easy matter to return the pen, and say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to any more.

patricias pencilcase

Plenty to fill this (c) Patricia Collins

For the accumulation, I’m taking a two pronged attack. Firstly, greater care in restoring pens to their rightful owners. No more thoughtless pocketing of other people’s biros. Secondly, a little sewing project – an oddment of material, a re-purposed zip and a pencil case is born. A sweep of the shopping bags. desk drawers and back of the sofa throws up a nice assortment of spare pens and pencils to fill it. A trip to the EFL centre where local asylum seekers have their English lessons to hand over the filled pencil case.

I can only lament my years of ‘green’ writing and the proliferation of plastic today and realise passing on the unwanted biros does nothing to solve the bigger problem, but at least people in need can practise the great art of writing.

-oOo-

Thanks to Patricia for another thought-provoking post.

Last year, before we passed our old dresser on to my niece, we cleared it out and discovered loads of old pens. I fished them out and Sister of Snail tested every one to see if it worked. Now I have an old cutlery tray full of pens… perhaps I should find new homes for them?

Bedding down

The woolly dog bed is complete. The pad was made entirely from an old dog bed and the yarn is 100% British wool out of my stash.

The edge includes a separate crocheted section that can be unravelled so the pad can be taken out to allow it to be washed separately from the cover. This was done to avoid the use of buttons, poppers or a zip, all of which might have been rather tempting to chew and then swallow.

I am rather pleased with it and Daisy and Sam seem to be happy too.

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