Going to extremes… or not

I keep coming across articles on the internet about people who have pared their life down to the bare essentials… like Rob Greenfield who only has 111 possessions (you can check them out here). Now I’m all for cutting down on waste and not buying unnecessary ‘stuff’, but I simply wouldn’t be happy with so little. What about creativity? What about owning equipment to make things or repair things? What about tools for cultivating the land? Living a nomadic life with no roots (metaphorically and literally … I love my plants), no money and no ‘safe’ place is just not something that I would want to contemplate seriously. I suspect it isn’t something that would work for many people and, indeed, the earth could support a much smaller population if we all foraged for all our food. I’m not saying that any of those things are ‘bad’, but just unrealistic given our starting point.

So, where do we find a balance? How much stuff should we have? Should we all follow the advice of Marie Kondo and only have possessions that ‘spark joy in our life’? I have to confess that I worry about decluttering simply for the sake of it… particularly where in a fit of enthusiasm for a tidy house, all the unwanted items end up in landfill. My desire for fewer possessions is balanced by my desire to be kind to the planet. An item may not spark joy in me, but if I know that it will be useful in the future, then I’m not going to throw it out.

So, my approach to reducing clutter in out home is currently based around the following:

Not adding to what we already have. This means being a member of the library rather than buying paperback books; not buying more craft supplies when I have plenty to keep me amused; making use of existing electronics (mobile phone, e-reader, pc etc) rather than being seduced into buying the latest model.

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it looked like this in 2012…it’s still working but more repaired!

Repairing. Making use of the materials/equipment that we have to repair things that wear out or break. Mr Snail’s collection of electronic components comes in very handy for repairing… this doesn’t reduce what we have much, but it justifies keeping some ‘stuff’ around. I refer you to the much repaired radio.

 

Being generous. When a friend mentions that they need something that I own but don’t really have a use for or a particular reason to keep, I give it to them. I’ve even started giving away things simply because a friend likes them.

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refreshed and ready to be sold

Finding new homes. This is slightly different to the last one because the driving force is that I no longer want an item rather than someone else expressing a desire for it. I feel guilty about sending anything to landfill, but selling something on, donating something to charity or offering an item for free (e.g. via Freecycle) feels like a positive action.

 

Composting. I have discovered the joys of converting unwanted paper into compost. This means that piles of old lecture notes, financial statements, old magazines and official letters are now part of the foundation for our vegetable crops! Composting also extends to natural fabrics that have reached the end of the useful/repairable life, along with worn out wooden items (bamboo toothbrushes, wood and bristle scrubbing brushes, broken wooden skewers etc), although sometimes we burn wooden items (for fuel, not simply to dispose of them).

and as a last resort…

Recycling. But it’s much better to find ways to repair/reuse/repurpose/rehome before you get to this stage.

And more than anything else, not to be seduced into thinking that buying new ‘stuff’ will make me happy.

So I’m slowly clearing and sorting and selling and sharing… I’m never going to be down to 111 possessions, but I am going to have found new homes or new uses for lots of the ‘stuff’ in my house, and I’m going to love making and repairing and creating with what I do have.

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!!!

 

21st Century Womble (recycled)

As I cleaned out the new chicken house with an old spatula that we found on the pavement ages ago, I was reminded of this post, written in September 2012. I think it’s worth revisiting it… I’m still a Womble, possibly more so as my girth increases with age!

It’s also worth adding a picture, I think, for those of you who’ve never met a Womble:

These are Wombles (Guardian website)

 

The Snail of Happiness

Do you know what a Womble is? If you were a child growing up in the 1970s in Britain, you certainly do, but I’m not sure how far their fame spread and whether they crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the US or traveled half way round the world to the Antipodes… I hope they did.

Wombles may have been the greenest creatures ever created… they were certainly well ahead of their time. They are smallish furry animals with an eye for potential: collecting what others perceive as rubbish and transforming it into useful items. The original books were written by Elisabeth Beresford (the first was published in 1968) but then made into a television series that was narrated by Bernard Cribbins. Ms Beresford was an author with vision – she created a group of characters who could save the world if they were in charge: unassuming grassroots environmentalists.

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So, let’s get creative

At the beginning of this week, the IPCC issued its latest report on climate change. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that human beings are having a significant effect on the earth’s climate as a result of various greenhouse gasses. We can all expect the effects to become more noticeable over time. What are we to do? The key is reducing our use of fossil fuels (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) and this is something that we can all contribute to.

Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC working group says this:

We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.

And that’s what we need to do, to be creative and to understand that we can each take a little bit of responsibility and make a difference. Over the nearly two years that I have been writing this blog, I’ve discussed all sorts of small steps that I (and others) have taken to lead a life that is a little bit greener and, therefore, contributes a little bit less to climate change and destruction of the planet in other ways.

So, I thought that now would be a good time to list some of the creative things that I’ve been doing that help…

First, in our house, we try to mend things rather than throwing them away as soon as something goes wrong. So, this is our solar-powered wind-up radio in its current (much repaired) incarnation:

Solar, wind-up radio in its latest incarnation... still going strong

Our eco-radio

And (much as I dislike it) I do darn things:

And the finished job... not too bad and it should last a while longer

Darned slipper sock

Recently, the base plate on our old Dyson vacuum clearer broke, but we managed to get a replacement secondhand one, so that should survive a bit longer:

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Second, we try to cut down our food miles by growing our own (remember we only have a little garden behind a modern bungalow):

Some of the outputs

All from our garden

and by buying from local producers like:

All produce comes from the farm

Blaen Camel farm shop

A busy market day

Lampeter people’s market

Beautiful restoration inside the mill

The local water mill

And preserving food so that we don’t waste any surplus:

Potted up and coolng

Storing the apple harvest

We have reduced our use of petrochemicals and fossil fuels by using products that contain natural ingredients:

No need to think about shampoo for a while now

Buying natural and in bulk

Increasing our use of renewables:

Our solar panels

Our solar panels

A roaring success for boiling water!

Boiling water using wood from our willow hedge

Cutting down on the heating bills:

Curtains on a track or rail

Curtains provide good insulation

I love the colours in this yarn

Stylish ways to keep warm

Fingerless mittens in action

Fingerless mittens in action for warm hands

And reducing our use of plastics:

The finished bag

Homemade cotton shopping bag from scrap fabric

We’ve also enjoyed some repurposing:

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

An old cat litter tray now used as a laying box

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Five varieties of Capsicums sown

Toilet roll middles as biodegradable pots

Curtains will probably be a more stylish option for insulation!

Curtains would probably be a more stylish option for insulation, but oven mitts did the trick temporarily!

And just, generally getting creative with waste:

Hexipuffs for a quilt... made from sock wool oddments

Hexipuffs for a quilt… made from sock wool oddments

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection.

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally as you can see from the bubbles on the surface

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally to make vinegar

And, of course, sharing

The route to so many interesting people.

… by blogging…

... but what is my teaching worth?

… teaching…

Brooklyn Blackout Cake - too fiddly to make every day!

… and, of course, over coffee and cake…

I told you so…

I really am hopeless at throwing things out… so many items might just possibly come in useful in the future and I just can’t bring myself to consider them to be trash. Even recycling can be a challenge, because I’m always aware that it’s better to reuse or repurpose an object than to break it down and make it into a whole new something. As a result of this, our contributions to landfill are small, but our house is stuffed full of, well, stuff. We are trying very hard to cut down on what comes into the house to avoid too much accumulation.

My new old calendar

My new old calendar

Recently I have been trying to have a bit of a clear-out, before my office bursts at the seams and so a few weeks ago I went through some old calendars and diaries, cut out any pictures I thought might be useful for teaching (the Trees for Life diaries were particularly good for this) and put the remnants in the recycling. There was one calendar, however, that I just couldn’t bring myself to dispose of because it was made by my friend Anja for 2003 and contained lots of her own drawings. So, I put it to one side thinking that, perhaps I would cut it up and make a collage of the pictures. Then yesterday, Mr Snail-of-happiness came across it and noticed that the days were right for this year… it’s 11 years old and that’s the time that the days and dates match up again.

So, Anja’s calendar is now in use again (I hadn’t written on it first time round because it was so lovely) in my office and I am feeling smug that I didn’t throw it out or cut it up. OK, OK, I know that I can’t keep everything, but sometimes I do feel pleased with myself that I held on to an item that did turn out to be useful.

Origins

When I’m asked where my interest in sustainability and the environment comes from. I can say without hesitation that it originated from my parents, especially my dad. Even as children in the 1970s, we were expected to minimise waste. From collecting newspapers for the scouts, to taking lemonade bottles back for the deposit; from composting to going to the bottle bank; recycling was part of our lives. There was never any question about these activities, they were just something we did.

Indeed, my dad did more than this, and those of you in the UK can thank him for the introduction of the first Bottle Banks provided by local authorities. He worked for Leeds City Council, running their cleansing and refuse collection services and was able to put in place facilities to increase recycling of glass, paper and plastic bottles by everyone. His dedication to this aspect of environmental care has stayed with us throughout our lives… perhaps meaning that my family has been responsible for sending much less waste to landfill over our lives than most.

My dad also encouraged us to garden and always maintained that the chap who lived down the road, who was a candidate for the Green Party, would have been better occupied digging up his garden and growing vegetables rather running political campaigns! I was not an enthusiastic gardener as a child, but I certainly got to learn all about sowing seeds, growing vegetables and making compost – something that has stood me in good stead as an adult.

I can, therefore, thank my dad for laying the foundations of my concern for the environment and for inspiring this blog – thanks dad, I’m really going to miss you.

David Martin
30December 1932 – 27 February 2014

February sunset

February sunset

Mind the gap

It doesn’t matter how carefully you look round a house before you buy it, there are always some little ‘surprises’ once you move in. Plus, after the move, you always have packing material to deal with.

When the two new mattresses arrived at my sister’s house, they had some wadding protecting the corners. She had put this to one side in case we could think of something to do with it. It sat in a small pile for a few days and we pondered. During this time, we noticed that the house was rather draughty and discovered that the inner front door (there’s a porch too) had a rather wide gap below it that was allowing lots of cold air in. The only draught-excluder in the house was too narrow for the door… reducing the draught, but allowing quite a bit round the sides. So, what better use for the wadding than a new draught-excluder?

Stuffing the leg of a pair of tights

Stuffing the leg of a pair of tights

First of all, we played with the pieces to see if they would fit across the door – they did if orientated correctly. So, we rolled each piece up and, to keep them rolled up, we stuffed them down one leg of an old pair of nylon tights. A bit of jiggery-pokery and the other leg was used to provide a double layer, before tying the top off and snipping off the excess.

A perfect fit - but not very pretty

A perfect fit – but not very pretty

We double-checked to make sure that our creation fitted snugly across the bottom of the the door and then turned our attention to making it more aesthetically pleasing. The blue curtain you can see in the background of the first picture is only a temporary measure and a new terracotta one is destined to go over the front door, so we wanted to make the draught-excluder match.

Rolling the core in tough cotton fabric

Rolling the core in tough cotton fabric

We started by rolling the ‘core’ in some tough cotton fabric that my sister had in her sewing box. I should say at this point that the fabric has been waiting to be used for more than 25 years… I know this because it was bought at the same time and from the same place as the stuff I used to make my latest shopping bag. We bought it when we were both still living with our mum and dad in Leeds! The ends were tucked in carefully and I hand-stitched this covering in place.

Now, a cream-coloured draught-excluder is not ideal and, anyway, we wanted it to match the rest of the hallway. Up the stairs, above the front door, is a window. My sister had some orange curtains that she wanted to use there, but these were far too long and some pruning and hemming was required. So, I chopped off the bottom of these curtains (she doesn’t much like putting scissors to fabric, but I’m quite blasé about it) and we had plenty in the off-cut for our covering.

Excess fabric

Excess fabric

Some more rolling and, pinning and stitching (making use of the bottom finished edge to avoid having to turn a hem) and we had a completed and completely free draught-excluder for the front door. It was round about this time that I had to return home, but the creativity did not end there. The next day, via e-mail, I received pictures of the original (narrow) draught-excluder also covered with the orange fabric, in place along the bottom of the door from the hall into the living room, plus a picture of the shortened curtains newly hung in the window.

In situ creations

In situ creations

The shortened curtains also in place

The shortened curtains also in place

I love making something from nothing like this… and so useful too.

Wrapped up

Not being one to follow fashion, despite its title, this post is not an end-of-year wrap-up, but about something closer to my heart… packaging.

All this surrounding some small headphones

All this surrounding some small headphones

A few weeks ago I bought myself some new headphones for my MP3 player. After much research, I selected some that should be robust and fit for purpose (listening to audiobooks at night when I can’t sleep and to help me fall asleep). They are the sort that fits into the ear and so they really are small. When they arrived, however, they were contained in a box measuring 13 x 14 x 4.2cm. The packaging included the outer box, an internal piece of cardboard and no less than three separate pieces of plastic. Now, these headphones could have fitted comfortably in a medium-sized matchbox,without the need for any plastic, but that wouldn’t have made them look ‘high quality’, I suppose. Indeed, a quick test revealed that a simple combination of matchbox and their carrying case would have been ideal packaging:

Headphones in (French) matchbox

Headphones in (French) matchbox

Matchbox in carrying case

Matchbox in carrying case

And all that was before we even got to Christmas. I love the idea of a wrapped present and we have a couple of bags containing suitable paper/boxes/bags for wrapping gifts, but most of it is second hand in some way. I collect pretty boxes and tissue paper, along with gift bags, paper and pretty envelopes in which to put gifts. I also collect ribbons  – you’d be surprised how many organic goods come wrapped in tissue paper with cotton ribbon or tape around.

The pile of waste outside just one house after Christmas

The pile of waste outside just one house after Christmas

But I am in the minority. A short walk on the day when refuse was due to be collected after Christmas revealed piles of wrapping and packaging waste. Not content with wasteful, throw-away gifts, it seems that we in the UK want to compound the horror with tons or wrapping paper. It really does sadden me that so many people care so little about our planet and are quite prepared to be profligate with our limited resources.

I didn’t plan to end the year on a gloomy note, so I will make a promise instead… in 2014 I will try to find more ways to encourage people to treasure and nurture our planet and take just a few more small steps (like the Snail of Happiness) towards sustainability.

Wishing you all a happy and sustainable new year!

Plastic fantastic?

I now use a Pyrex roaster rather than a roasting tin and foil

I now use a Pyrex roaster rather than a roasting tin and foil

In my push towards a more sustainable life I’m always keen to avoid ‘single-use’ products where possible. As a result, every piece of aluminium foil in my kitchen is used multiple times, getting progressively smaller and more wrinkled until it finally enters the recycling bin. This makes good financial sense too, as I haven’t bought a new roll of the stuff for about five years. Where possible, however, I try to avoid using it at all – a Pyrex chicken roaster with a lid, for example, means that I never use a roasting tin and foil any more.

However, there are some occasions when it’s very difficult to avoid single-use items… plastic bottles of shampoo, for example. I’m happy that I only use the shampoo once (it’s a consumable after all), but what about the container? OK, I put it in the plastic recycling bin, but making a bottle for a single use seems really inefficient. The Body Shop used to refill bottles of shampoo, but they haven’t done so for many years now and I don’t know of anywhere else that does.

So, it is with interest that I have been reading Westywrites’ blog posts on just this subject ‘Plastic-free Me’. Westy is working up to taking part in ‘Plastic-free July 2014‘ which

aims to raise awareness of the massive consumption of single-use plastics throughout the world. The goal is to cut out completely (eek!) those plastics that we use for sometimes just a matter of minutes that potentially end up in landfill forever more
(Plastic-free Me: introduction)

Once you start thinking about all the single-use plastics that we encounter, certainly here in the UK, you begin to realise how much energy and how many resources we are being wasted. Even folks like me, who really do think about this sort of thing quite a lot, are still responsible for lots of plastic that’s only used once; for example, the bag my muesli comes in, the wrappers around magazines I subscribe to (although some of these now come in paper or cornstarch envelopes), my shampoo bottle, milk cartons, wrappers around plastic cd cases… I could go on.

We take our own containers when we buy coffee

We take our own containers when we buy coffee

Over the past few years we have reduced our use: we take a container to the coffee merchant and get that refilled rather than taking it away in a fancy plastic/foil/paper multi-layered bag; we buy unwrapped soap; we get bottles of various cleaning products refilled; we buy in bulk (this does not eliminate packaging, but does reduce it); we save small plastic bags, wash them out and reuse them; we never accept a plastic carrier bag and always have a cotton one or basket when out shopping; we reuse plastic bottles and containers when possible; we save bubble-wrap for re-use; and we try to buy food in paper rather than plastic packaging.

Buying in bulk and in paper packaging. We'll probably store potatoes in the bag once the oats are eaten.

Buying in bulk and in paper packaging. We’ll probably store potatoes in the bag once the oats are eaten.

However, without making my own shampoo, I’m at a loss to know how to avoid this single-use plastic. And there’s a limit to the number of small plastic bottles you can make use of round the house. So, I will be reading about Westy’s journey to a plastic-free July with interest and hopefully, I’ll get some new ideas along the way…. or perhaps you have some for me now?

Disreputable trousers

I used to have a high-powered job
– smart blouses, skirts and suits
wool coats, court shoes, silk scarves, cashmere
and pairs of high-heeled boots

Lots of coats and hats in my wardrobe now!

Lots of coats and hats in my wardrobe now!

But management was not for me
Nor cuts, nor staff, nor stress
So I gave it up to work from home
although the pay was less

And now inside my wardrobe
the fancy clothes are few
but there are some saggy cardies
and flowery tunics too.

The shoes I wear are flat, not heeled
my coat is waterproof
I dress for warmth and comfort
sometimes a bit uncouth

But clothes last so much longer
because when a tear appears
I simply stitch it back together
to last a few more years

I have got clothes to party in
that are new and never torn
but many of the things I wear
are very much well-worn

It’s part of being sustainable
to make things last and last
wearing disreputable trousers**
whose smartest days are past

So, don’t throw all those garments out
you don’t want your friends to see
wear them in the garden
or while you’re drinking tea

Textiles and clothes, yarn and fabric
are sources of pollution
so cut your use and buy less new
and be part of the solution

Reject the fashonistas, who
tell you to keep buying
minimise your purchases
you can if you keep trying

Choose natural dyes, organic fibres
good quality and then
repair, reuse, recycle
and only throw out when

there’s really nothing else to do
with those clothes you own,
but you’ll have made less impact
on the place that we call home

-oOo-

** This phrase came from Snuffkin’s blog post here, and thus she inspired me to write this poem

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