Only we can save the world

It’s ages since I’ve put together a post with ideas about how we can do our bit for the planet, support our communities and generally save the world, so here goes…

We can fix things:

We can see value in what’s around us, in what others might consider waste, and we can turn it into something useful or beautiful, or both:

We can support local business, small producers and community activities:

We can make thoughtful choices when we spend our money:

We can grow and cook our own… that way we know what’s in what we eat:

And we can share our stories:

I have no idea what I was talking about at this point!

I have no idea what I was talking about at this point!

Bragging rights

I am constantly exasperated by the fact that we are bombarded with the message that success and happiness can be equated to owning the latest ‘stuff’. Large corporations, of course, have a vested interest in perpetuating this idea – after all their raison d’être is to sell us more things and thus make a profit. This is the reason for fashion – you really don’t look better in this year’s colours  than you did in last year’s… however much  clothes shops tell you that you do. Similarly, the latest i-phone is completely unnecessary to you because all you ACTUALLY want to do is send e-mails, look at a couple of web sites and make a phone call or two… why on earth you would want to queue up overnight to be the first to obtain the latest model is beyond comprehension.

Are you successful because you have a huge TV, a fast car or the latest video game? Are you happy because you own a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or a BMW? Even if the act of buying these things gave you instant gratification, do you not find yourself hankering after the next purchase as soon as you have got the first one home? If the answer is yes, then you are being suckered by retailers and manufacturers.

So… what really does make you happy? And what should you be bragging about to your friends? Well, my experience is that I can find happiness in all sorts of places…. on the beach, cuddled up with my sweetie, collecting fresh eggs from my hens, picking herbs in the garden, watching an eclipse or writing my blog. And what do I have to brag about in the way of possessions? Well there are a few…

Solar, wind-up radio mended again!

Our much-repaired solar, wind-up radio… still going strong

Me and my props (including the snails)

The masterpiece (a rare picture of me posing with it)

The new wand seems to be a rather brighter grey than the old cleaner

Our old Dyson vacuum cleaner… with several new components helping to extend its life

A work bag made from yarn left over from another project

A work bag made from yarn left over from another project

Ready for action

My handmade string shopping bags

The complete set up

My repaired antique swift and secondhand wool winder

The Snail of Scrappiness

The Snail of Scrappiness – a gift from a friend (the lovely Kate)

All mended!

Our twice-repaired Kelly kettle

And I could go on and on… you may be identifying a theme here. All these things have a history and memories associated with them. Every single one of them makes me smile when I look at it. Every one I want to preserve and continue to own for years to come. Every one I want to share with you.

So, what about you? What objects that you own REALLY make you happy? What would you like to brag about?

OK… here are a few more of mine…

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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Ask and you shall receive

One of the things I’m trying to do at the moment is to avoid buying new things if I can get something secondhand. The idea is that this will reduce my drain on the earth’s resources, help decrease the amount of stuff going to landfill and satisfy my needs.

So, the other day I stopped myself taking the easy option (when you have enough money) and simply ordering a wool winder and a swift from Loop’s knitting shop. Recent purchases of yarn have regularly been in the form of hanks and draping them around chair-legs and winding by hand is a bit of a pain – and very slow. Owning these two items makes the process much easier and quicker.

This is my swift

This is my swift

However, I reminded myself that I do have a swift, albeit a broken one. It’s actually an object that I have great sentimental attachment to because it was given to me by a very dear lady who taught me embroidery. She was quite a hoarder, but often passed on fabric, embroidery silk and other sewing-related things to me and my mum (I have a collection of beautiful mother of pearl buttons from her). She gave me the swift about 30 years ago and I know it was old then, so it must be an antique. Sadly she passed away a few years ago, but the swift remains with me.

The broken 'arm'

The broken ‘arm’

Currently it’s held together with tape, but I plan to mend it with glue and fine twine, which I am hoping will give it many more years of (gentle) use. With all that trellis contraption, it’s no wonder that it’s got damaged. I’m pretty sure that it’s at least 60 years old and may be significantly older. It may even have been made by the husband of the lady who gave it to me as he was very good at woodwork. I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen one like it before. Anyway, whatever its history, it’s going to be put back into service soon.

A yarn winder

A yarn winder

So, the swift was already in my possession, what about a ball winder? My mum used to have one, but it ended up in a charity shop, I think. I, therefore, used the power of social networking and appealed to my friends on Facebook to see if anyone had one they didn’t want. In the spirit of bartering, I offered a pair of hand knitted socks or crochet slippers in exchange. And within a couple of hours I had one person who thought her mum had one, one offer to order a secondhand one from e-bay in the US (only new ones on UK e-bay at the time) and one person who thought they had one and would look. After a brief pause, my friend Susan came up trumps – she had one in her loft and delivered it on Thursday (she only lives two miles away). In exchange she accepted a cup of tea and a homemade muffin… I even offered money but she wouldn’t take any.

My next job, therefore, is some repair work on the swift, and then I will be able to convert hanks (skeins) into balls as much as I like. Hurrah for reuse and repair!

Nearly ready to use!

Nearly ready to use!

Oh, and if a second winder does become available, another friend would also like one, so I can rehome that too!

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…

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.

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

Spend, spend, spend

Question: What is the best way to help the environment and, at the same time, save money?

Answer: Stop buying stuff.

We in the UK (and the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and many other places) live in a consumer society. We buy stuff. We are encouraged to buy stuff… not just by manufacturers, but by the governments that we elect.

The UK Government website (gov.uk) list one of their policies as being ‘Achieving Strong and Sustainable Economic Growth‘, stating

To make sure the UK can succeed in the global economy, we are taking action to stimulate economic growth while supporting people who work hard and want to get on in life.

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can't produce any more!

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can’t produce any more!

Well, maybe I’m being stupid here, but I think that continuous growth is simply not sustainable. As an ecologist, I know that natural systems have a ‘carrying capacity’ for any given species and ecosystem. Growth occurs until the carrying capacity is reached, then there is sometimes a bit of an overshoot, but eventually if nothing else changes, an equilibrium is reached and numbers remain steady. Since our world does not have infinite resources, then infinite growth is not possible* and any government that claims it is (in whatever context) must be lying.

However, many governments continue to present continued economic growth as a panacea that will cure all our woes. And how do they wish to deliver this? By getting you and me to spend money: to buy ever bigger houses, to replace our mobile phone as soon as a more advanced model becomes available, to follow fashion, to feel we can only be happy with the biggest TV, trendiest trainers and latest computer. Of course, much of the ‘stuff’ that we buy comes from overseas (why do you think China has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years?), but some of the money (especially linked to things like construction) goes to companies based in our own country… and if this increases then, hey presto! economic GROWTH and, apparently, universal happiness.

But it’s simply not true. First, apart from the media telling you that we need economic growth, do you really see a great benefit for YOU? And, perhaps more importantly, do you see any great benefit for the planet and the other people living on it? We continue to use up finite resources (and they really are finite, let nobody tell you otherwise) in a drive toward this nebulous thing called growth.

Of course we can do things like recycling, but a demand for more and more stuff means we have to expend energy to produce it, whether from new materials or from recycled ones; plus, if we buy from overseas we have to meet the environmental costs of transportation. The more I write about it, the more like nonsense it seems.

So, what are we to do? Well the answer is in your own hands – stop buying so much. Environmentalists used to talk about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. These days how about reduce, repair, revamp… and learn to treasure your possessions. Buy items that are good quality and can be mended if they break… reject the throw-away society and our governments and corporations telling us to spend, spend, spend our money. Instead, how about a bit of civil disobedience? Lets

SPEND more time growing things
SPEND more on good quality items that won’t need replacing
and
SPEND your leisure time being creative

-oOo-

* Malthus had something to say about this… Google him if you’re not familiar with his “Limits to Growth” work

Secondhand socks

My teaching involves setting the learners lots of activities to do. At these times I want to let them get on with it without my input, so I have small blocks of ‘spare’ time. I used to take a book along with me to read, but I did tend to get interrupted and so never really got much reading done. More recently I have started taking some knitting with me. This is an ideal way to fill time, and I can even chat and answer questions whilst doing it. I lug lots of teaching stuff around with me, so don’t really want to be carrying chunky pieces of knitting, so I usually take a sock.

Hand-knitted socks

As well as keeping me amused, the activity often elicits questions, particularly since I usually knit on four or five needles and use self-patterning sock yarn. Usually, the questions are about the complexity of the process and the reason for using so many needles, but a few weeks ago I was asked a question that rather had me stumped:

why do you knit socks when they are so cheap secondhand?

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this one was hard for me to answer. Fortunately someone else responded with the most obvious question:

you can buy secondhand socks?

And the answer was “yes you can,” apparently very cheaply from car boot sales. As an infrequent visitor to car boot sales, I have little idea about what one can buy at them, but the few times I have visited such an event my perception (at least here in west Wales) is that the stalls are dominated by books, old videos, bric-a-brac and plants. My friend Anja obtained all the crockery and cutlery for her wedding reception from car boot sales, but I have never thought of them for clothes shopping. The group discussed the subject and, it turned out, that in the local area (which is very rural) no one had encountered a significant market in secondhand socks, but if you visit the big car boot sales around major cities in the UK, they are full of very cheap, hardly worn clothes, including socks. Perhaps this reflects the relative affluence of cities compared to the countryside; perhaps it reflects attitudes. Are  country-dwellers less likely to consider their purchases disposable, or simply too poor to just discard clothes when they no longer appeal?

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that clothes are not always bought to last – the prevalence of retailers on the high street selling cheap items, often produced in sweatshops should be an indicator that these are disposable goods. If you have to save up for an item, you are surely more likely to value it than something that you buy on a whim for just a few pounds. In addition, the perception is that it’s ok to get bored with a cheap item, because you can throw it away and get a new version. I suppose, however, that the fact that clothes are being sold on is a good sign to some extent… if even socks can find a second home, then there must be hope for all sorts of other items.

Self-patterning socks

But wouldn’t it be better if we valued the items that we do own. Considering that 20% of the world’s population use 80% of the world’s resources, perhaps a small step to redressing this balance would be to cut back on using any more stuff. And, in fact, knitting socks may lead me to do this. First, most sock wool is guaranteed for 10 years – so the product that I am making should last me a good deal longer than most socks that I could go and buy from the shops. But second, because I will have spent time in the act of creating these socks and because they are unique, I think that I will value them more – perhaps taking time to mend them should they become damaged, rather than simply discarding them.

We often hear the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”, and buying second hand delivers the second of these, but if we could all do a bit more of the first we could make an enormous difference.

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