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However, the data in the Environment Agency Report are a few years out of date and SNS (Nordic Forest Research) recently published a report outlining the climate benefits of forests.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.

Brace yourself

We have lived in our house for nearly 20 years now and, in line with our general ethos of trying to reduce our impact on the environment, we have done our best to make things last. Eventually, however, there comes a time when the fixtures and fittings need replacing, We’ve been aware that our kitchen cabinets have been getting more and more tatty in recent years.

We started talking, a couple of years ago, about having them replaced. I got Tim (the wonderful cabinet maker who built our pine cupboards) to look at them with a view to him constructing a whole new kitchen for us. However, he was of the opinion that this was unnecessary – the carcasses of the units were very robust and he suggested that just replacing the doors would be the way forward. I searched and searched for ‘off the shelf’ doors that would match the ones Tim had made before, but had no joy, so I gave the job to him.

He constructed traditional ledge-and-brace doors from pine. and even managed to reuse most of the original hinges. In addition, he was able to clad the ends of the cupboards to make them look even smarter. He also put new fronts on the drawers.

Finally, he was able to modify one of the cupboards so that it has a back door. This may sound odd, but supporting our breakfast bar is a big corner cupboard… you know the sort – so big that things get pushed to the back, never to see the light of day again. Usually, of couse, these are in the corner of a room, but not so ours – it just had a wooden back on it. I asked Tim if he could remove the back and fit doors so that I could access it from either direction and, being the skilled carpenter that he is, he had no problem building a frame, modifying the shelf and fitting additional doors.

You can even see a door of the original cupboard Tim build for us a couple of years ago in the background of the last picture!

So, our kitchen has been rejuvenated. In the end, all the wood, two hinges and the screws were new and three of the existing hinges also had to be replaced. The wood was sourced from a local sawmill and the work was done by a local craftsman – now, that’s my sort of revamp. I feel that we’ve managed to make an enormous improvement whist making use of as many of the existing materials as possible. At some point I’ll have the work surfaces replaced, but they are ok for now and I’m still pondering suitable materials.

I am a very happy snail.

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?

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.

Making to remake

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Fitted, but made to be moved

In general when we are crafting, we think only about a single finished product, but maybe we should try to have a longer term perspective. For example, if you are making children’s clothes, they may only be the right size for a relatively short time, so perhaps you could design, from the outset, for them to be altered or even taken apart and made into a different garment. If you are particularly fashion-conscious, you may want to change your look every year or even every season, so it makes sense from an eco-perspective to be able to reuse the same raw materials time and again. Equally, you may want to build some free-standing shelves when you live in a rented home, but when you buy your own place you might want to convert them to being wall-mounted. When we had our new fitted cupboard built in the kitchen, Tim the carpenter made it on a frame that could be removed, so we can take it with us if we move house.

If we start off with the mindset that we are likely to want to reuse our raw materials, we can make to facilitate this. This seems like a reasonable suggestion, given the earth’s limited resources, and is something that may eventually be forced upon us. I’ve been thinking about examples and, so far I’ve come up with a few:

  • Use screws rather than nails or glue for woodwork.
  • When knitting or crocheting, weave in all the yarn ends before joining the pieces together, then seam with a new long length of thread.
  • Stitch on buttons or press-studs rather than riveting them.
  • Leave generous seam allowances and hems where these will not affect the fit of the garment.

Do you have any ideas? Do you ever think about this sort of thing when you are making?

 

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.

Spot the mend

Darning, a once detested job for me, has become quite enjoyable, especially when it comes to mending hand-knitted socks. Recently, however, I was presented with a rather different prospect.

We have a muslin curtain to provide some privacy in our living room and when I was washing this a few weeks ago I managed to tear it. It’s not really surprising, I made this particular curtain about 15 years ago, so it has been exposed to a lot of UV and the fibres were bound to start breaking down sooner or later. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to abandon it just yet and considered a couple of options. First, I thought about cutting the torn strip out and joining the two halves back together, The fabric is wide enough to do this, but it would have left a very obvious seam down the middle and I would have had to fiddle about with the top where there is a channel for the rod to go through. I dismissed this plan. My alternative was to try some sort of darn, using fine thread. It wasn’t going to be possible to make this invisible, but I didn’t want a big bold mend either. I, therefore, chose some pale cotton thread and set to with my needle:

It turns out that I achieved an almost invisible mend, unintentionally. What do you think?

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.

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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?

New but old

When I was 16 my mum and dad bought me a sewing machine – a relatively simple Singer, which did straight stitches, zig-zag, buttonholes and about six other fancier stitches. I used it to make skirts, coats, curtains, toys, ballgowns and even the most amazing fully boned purple satin dress to wear for a friend’s wedding. It has been serviced regularly over the years, but in 2018 it became clear that it was struggling and no longer up to the jobs I wanted it to perform – most notably zig-zag stitches in jersey fabric. I dithered about getting a new one because I really didn’t want anything too complicated or that relied on electronics, and so I made do.

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A mechanical marvel

However, back in the summer we were discussing sewing machines at Knit Night and one of the ladies mentioned her old Bernina 830 and what fabulous machines they are. She explained that secondhand models were greatly sought after and worth looking out for, but, even so, relatively easy to find because they were so well built and so long-lived. I searched ebay and finally found what I wanted in a location where I could go and collect it. And so, on my way back from the Crochet Sanctuary weekend, I picked up my new (old) machine. Indeed, it is actually older than my Singer. The lady selling it told me it had belonged to her late mother, who bought it new… and for which there was the original paperwork. Not only that, but she had the original cabinet for it that she also offered me, and for which I made a donation to a charity she selected. The cabinet is brilliant, with a platform that allows the machine to drop down inside at the flick of a lever.

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Complete with cabinet

Having had the same machine for 35 years, it has taken me a while to get used to a different set-up. Nevertheless, it has turned out to be a great purchase. The first thing I made with it was Sam’s t-shirt, but I’ve progressed on to more complex things and am finding it a joy to use. It has needed no more than a quick clean and the application of oil to get it working smoothly. I haven’t tried sewing jersey fabric yet, but my current project involves lots of layers of fabric/interfacing and it’s turning out to be a breeze, so fingers crossed for future projects.

I’m so pleased to have avoided buying a brand new machine, and the lady I bought it off seemed delighted that it was going to a home where it would once again be cherished. Hurrah for well made tools that can last more than one lifetime.

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