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However, the data in the Environment Agency Report are a few years out of date and SNS (Nordic Forest Research) recently published a report outlining the climate benefits of forests.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

 

What a bind

Back in January one of my birthday presents from Mr Snail was a course at Make it in Wales – a café and craft space in Cardigan. Naturally there were no courses that I wanted to do near to my birthday, so it wasn’t until 10 days ago that I actually got my present. To make it even better, my friend Sue (Going Batty in Wales) also booked to come along, so we had a lovely day together being creative. The course I chose was Coptic bookbinding.

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Sue’s cover under construction (c) Sue Laverack

I did do a little bit of bookbinding at primary school, but it’s a long, long time ago and I have no real recollection of it, apart from knowing that we made stitched books with a covered spine (no idea what the technical term is… is that case bound?). Coptic binding, in contrast, has exposed decorative stitching and the course involved making a keepsake book, with both pages and envelopes bound in. Because there is room for expansion, Coptic binding lends itself to a book that you might want to stick things in or with envelopes that might end up fatter than when originally inserted. The open spine shows off the pages inside, so using coloured paper around the bundles of white pages (the signatures) and for the envelopes allowed us to make attractive finished books.

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Making an envelope (c) Sue Laverack

Our tutor, Carole King, provided hand-printed paper of her own design for the covers and keepsake envelopes, along with lovely plain colours to choose from. We started by making the covers for our books, pasting printed paper onto the boards and then adding a colour to cover the inside of each cover. I chose a black on white print of little houses and Sue chose a fishy design on green. After that we cut out three envelopes to go inside (one in the print and two coloured ones) added any extra colour we wanted and arranged our pages into a pleasing order.

After a delicious lunch in the café (thank you Sue for treating me), the afternoon was spent learning to stitch our books together and finally finishing off by gluing the envelopes closed (you have to leave them open to allow access for stitching) and trimming the pages.

It’s an ancient technique, but still being practiced and valued today. I’m pretty certain this won’t be the last book I make and I already have my eye on future courses to learn different techniques.

Three Things Thursday: 6 April 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with the happy*

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain here are my Three Things Thursday.

All this weeks ‘things’ came in a single package from Wild Daffodil, who had sent me an email to ask if I could make use of some crochet squares and yarn… I said I could (no surprise). When it arrived the package was bursting with things to make me smile.

First, ‘bringing new life to yarn‘ – this is the phrase that Wild Daffodil used in her letter to me. She sent me: some autumn shades squares that were going to be a poncho, but 12 years down the line were clearly not going to achieve their original intended purpose; some thicker squares; and some 4-ply yarn that had been her mother’s. I plan to give all this yarny abundance new life by working it up into blankets (or other charity items), most likely for Sixty Million Trebles.

Second, a letter and more. Not only did Wild Daffodil write me a letter on beautiful paper that she bought in a Nepalese temple in 1994, she also included a few extra sheets of the paper for me to use.

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a letter and the potential for another letter or two

 

Third, a crochet seahorse. I do have a copy of Wild Daffodil’s pattern to make these seahorses, but time has not allowed me to complete one yet. However, I now have one made by the designer herself. I’m going to add this to my marine collection (sand dollars from Lisa and a fish from Nana Cathy) which is eventually going to become a mobile.

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see – a horse!

 

So, those are three things making me smile and for which I am grateful this week – and all in one parcel. What has made you happy this week?

Piles of files

National Recycle Week – Day 5

Today it’s recycling my way!

With my half-century on the horizon (ok it’s more than a year yet, but it’s still there) I have been re-evaluating my life and some things have had to go, the latest being my teaching for the university. Finally I acknowledged Mr Snail’s repeated cries of ‘you’re being exploited’ and decided that I’d had enough. I’d fought the good fight – I’d argued the case for better treatment of ‘casual’ (their term, not mine)  teaching staff with everyone from personnel to the Vice Chancellor for the last 17 years and finally, I’d had enough. So, it’s over and I’m now looking forward to writing knitting and crochet patterns instead, alongside my usual editing work.

This change has brought with it the incentive to clear out my office… over the years I’ve accumulated loads of files and reports and they have been looming over me on my shelves for far too long. So, on Monday afternoon, whilst I was running a defrag on my ailing laptop, I decided to start the clear out in earnest.

I started on a shelf of lever-arch files, with one stuffed full of jottings from my 2002 Open University MEd module.

A small start

A small start

And then I worked my way along the shelf, realising just how much paper I have been accumulating over the years.

A few more

A few more

And so it went on, as I progressed to another shelf, which included box files

and more

and more

And then on to the pile on the floor up the corner

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and more

Until my computer was finally done and I had a break, having filled a couple of boxes  and a large bag full of paper

Just one of the boxes

Just one of the boxes

and having completely stuffed one of the liberated box files full of poly-pockets

Reused box file containing poly-pockets awaiting reuse

Reused box file containing poly-pockets awaiting reuse

I suspect that we will never need to buy any sort of filing supplies for the rest of our lives!  And I’m only part way through.

So, what of the recycling part of this post? Well, the new raised bed is now complete and there’s a lot of it to fill. We’ve decided to treat it like a big composter for the time being and so, the bottom needs a good layer of paper and cardboard to act as a base:

A nice absorbent base - full of carbon

A nice absorbent base – full of carbon

Before being covered with greenery:

Grass clippings on top

Grass clippings on top

Several years ago we trained some of our neighbours to deliver their grass clippings to us and, right on time, a bag arrived this morning for me to add to the mix. Now, I just need to go and collect the bags of moss I have been promised and some horse muck and we’ll be well on the way to a replacement for the bed that was removed to make way for the limery. Now, that’s my sort of recycling.

But it might come in useful…

Apparently those of us interested in being greener by reducing consumption can be divided into two camps: the minimalists and the hoarders. You can, most certainly, find me in the latter. Whenever an item has reached the end of its use I find it difficult to throw it away. I cannot help but think that ‘it might come in useful’.

  • That box that my new secateurs came in? It’s very sturdy, if somewhat oddly proportioned… it might come in useful.
  • The old dismantled chicken coop that was a bit of a disaster? There’s mesh and a little door and wood… it might come in useful.
  • The old gutters from the house that were replaced five years ago? You can use them to grow plants in apparently… they may, even now, come in useful.
  • Padded envelopes? You can never have too many padded envelopes in a variety of sizes because you never know when you might need to send out 157 items in the post! They may (all) come in useful.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Filling the space available

My bulging office

The trouble is, I’m starting to feel swamped by all this accumulating ‘stuff’ and so I’m having a bit lot of a clear out. A responsible clear out that does not simply mean sending everything to landfill and starting again, but finding an appropriate home for everything that I feel able to let go of.

The big task  at the moment involves teaching materials. After an internal tussle, I have made the decision to give up my university teaching and not to seek other similar work. The time has come to let it go. Now, there is a lot of ‘stuff’ associated with my teaching, including piles and piles of handouts. These take up an enormous amount of space in my office – occupying floor and bookshelves – that could be put to better use. So, I’m getting rid of them. Pretty much all the up-to-date stuff is on my computer anyway, so I don’t need to keep paper copies. And, even better, I know what to do with all the paper… it’s going in the bottom of the new raised bed to act as a carbon source! Well, we will keep a bit as scrap for printing on, but the amount I have would last us forever, so I’ve decided to convert it back into plant material: from hand-outs to herbs!

The other thing I came across today was a collection of OHP transparencies. I quickly searched on the internet to find out if these could be recycled… the answer is ‘yes’, but not in the UK as far as I can tell. The company 3M used to recycle them, and still do in the US, but an e-mail from them this morning confirmed that they no longer offer this service here. I’m rather disappointed about this because clearly a method is available. I see that there are a whole host of things you can use them for in an arty and crafty way, but I don’t want to. First, I want them gone because I’m making a break from this aspect of my life and second, I just don’t want to add to my stocks of ‘but it might come in useful’ craft materials. Anyone got any ideas? It has been suggested that I pass them on to a local primary school for craft work, but I’m not convinced that they wouldn’t just end up in the dustbin (call be cynical). So, if you have some use for acetate sheets with printing on them (all about conservation and ecology), just let me know because at this rate I’ll be sending them to Pennsylvania for recycling!!!

 

I love compost

I’ve come in from a morning in the garden with dirt under my fingernails, feeling very satisfied with planting and sowing and potting on. The runner beans are in the ground, the melons, courgettes and squashes are in larger pots, there are two big pots of mangetout sown and the garden is looking like it might be quite productive this year.

Whilst potting up the curcurbits (as the squash and marrow family is known) I got to thinking about compost… partly because I had my hands in some lovely homemade stuff that I’m sure the plants are going to do really well in and partly because I have been reading blogs about compost this week. It all started of with a post by Fourth Generation Farm Wife describing a composting experiment which involved in situ composting… something I am very keen on. Her experiment didn’t quite work out they way she expected but was, nevertheless, a success. I make compost in my ‘rubbish beds’ and plant directly into them even though not all the material is broken down (because after all, it wouldn’t be in a natural system). This year I have harvested some of the compost out of these beds to pot up those curcurbits I mentioned earlier and it will be returned to the beds when the weather allows me to transplant them outside.

Many people seem to have problems with compost making, although many are very successful and if you search the internet you’ll find a whole raft of advice on how to make compost, what sort of composter to buy and loads of products (some astonishingly expensive) to help you to make ‘good’ compost. Personally, I’m not convinced. I have a variety of compost bins – a couple of wooden ones, which are good and big and easy to empty; a couple of ‘cones’, one big and one small, the big one really heats up if you put lots of grass clippings in it; one made of an old water butt that split; a wormery; and my good old standby, thick black polythene rubble bags.

My honest opinion is that the compost I make is pretty similar whatever the bin with the exception of the wormery and the black bags, because these use different composting methods. The other containers all make ‘slow compost’. Lots of books tell you that you need a big heap that you construct with specific proportions of different materials and that you need to turn the heap regularly and add water and it will get hot enough to form compost really quickly and kill off all the weed seeds. In my experience this simply doesn’t happen in normal domestic situations, where you ‘trickle feed’ material into your heap and it gets whatever is available in whatever proportions there are at the time. I’m fine with this – I just let it get on with it, close the bin up when it’s full and wait however long it takes to turn into compost (and I never turn my compost or add water). I do put paper, willow shreddings, chicken poo, cardboard and nettles on my compost, as well as shredded cotton occasionally in addition to the usual kitchen scraps and I’m generally happy with the results.

The wormery I keep mainly because I want the ‘worm wee’ (more delicately known as worm tea) which I use as a very handy (but smelly) liquid feed. It’s one of those bins with a reservoir and tap at the bottom and serves its purpose well, but is quite unwieldy when the compost needs emptying out. The black bags, in contrast, are very low-tech. I fill them with perennial weeds, such as dandelions or buttercups, including the roots. I then fasten the tops and put them in a heap out of the way for a few months (it’s important no light gets in). The conditions inside tend to be anaerobic (unless you get a puncture) and you end up with smelly fibrous sludge, ready for direct use on the vegetable beds or to go into the main compost bin for further aerobic composting (my preference is the former). I like this sort of composting because it makes use of material that might otherwise be discarded and so lost from my garden system and also because things like dandelions and docks produce really robust roots that are good and fibrous and rich in nutrients… ideal as a compost ingredient.

I never buy compost activators because nettles and chicken poo do the trick and I have no idea how well things like bokashi work (although maybe it’s a great option if you don’t have a garden and want to compost indoors), but I do know that there is something really satisfying about growing plants in compost made from stuff that most people would just throw away without a second thought… what other way is there for you to eat your old teabags and coffee grounds?

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