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?

ScrapHappy May 2019

In keeping with my recent activities, this month’s ScrapHappy is in the garden.

It’s a busy time of year for a gardener. Sowing seeds, potting up, transplanting and preparing beds for planting all seem to need to be done at the same time. If you visit your local garden centre, you are led to believe that you must buy all sorts of items to ensure that your garden grows, but there are also many scrappy solutions and I thought I’d share a few with you.

Many items, such as plant pots and labels can be used time and again, but when they finally come to the end of their life, there are alternatives. Recently I have used a couple of plastic buckets (that originally contained fat balls for the wild birds) to plant courgettes in, having punched some holes in the bottom for drainage. I cut up old plastic milk cartons to use for plant labels and these last for years – I write on them with a marker pen and clean them off each year with a bit of methylated spirit. My lettuce is planted in an old fish box that a neighbour found washed up on the beach and the pots containing my young pepper plants are currently sitting in an old polystyrene insulated mailing box that keeps them warm and acts as a water tray. I look at all moulded plastic packaging to see if part of it is the right shape for a pot holder and cut out the useful bit if it is. Punnets that have had fruit in (grapes or strawberries, perhaps) make ideal little seed trays, and they usually have holes in the bottom already; the ones with integral lids can even act as a tiny greenhouse when you are germinating seeds. And squirty bottles containing cleaning products can be thoroughly washed out and used as small garden sprayers, for things like foliar feed.

All these items are the sort of thing that gets thrown away on a daily basis, and even if they could be recycled, reuse is always a better option.

These are just a few examples of scrappy re-use in my garden; there are plenty of others involving pallets (see Mr Snail’s blog for an abundance of these), an old rotary clothes drier, electrical cables, mushroom trays and more. Do you have any scrappy gardening solutions?

-oOo-

I’ve been inspired to write this (and future) ScrapHappy posts by Kate,  Tall Tales from Chiconia. On the fifteenth of every month lots of other folks often publish a ScrapHappy post, do check them out:

KateGun, TittiHeléneEvaSue, Nanette, Lynn, Lynda,
Birthe, Turid, Susan, Cathy, Debbierose, Tracy, Jill, Claire, Jan (me)Karen,
Moira, SandraLindaChrisNancy, Alys, Kerry, Claire, Jean, Johanna,
Joanne, Jon, HayleyDawn, Gwen, Connie, Bekki and Sue (who I have just persuaded to join in)

If you fancy joining, contact Kate and she’ll add you to the list. It would be lovely to see more non-sewing posts, but any use of scraps is welcome.

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?

 

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.

The Limery Awakens

We are just at the start of our second full growing season in the limery. Last year saw amazing successes with sweet peppers (capsicum) and a fairly healthy tomato crop (the last of which have on just ripened up in their box!). Now I’m starting to nurture this year’s crops (including at least one new one) and some of the carnivores are beginning to wake up…

As always, we are doing our best to reuse… the writing on the milk carton plant labels from last year has been cleaned off with meths, the padded packaging from around the new chicken feeder looks like it will make cosy trays for seedlings, none of the plant pots are new, we water the seedlings from a plastic milk bottle with a perforated lid and my dad’s propagator is doing it’s stuff for yet another year. Only the seed compost, seed potatoes and the seeds are new (in fact some of the seeds are from last year, plus we overwintered the pepper plants).

I do love the promise that spring holds.

Take it away

Inextricably linked with take-away meals, it seems, is the idea of disposability. Buy the food – take it home – extract it from its packaging – throw the packaging away.  No effort, no washing up, just trash. But it needn’t be this way. You can have a take-away, without the throw-away.

One of our favourite local take-aways is El Salsa. They have a trailer that they take to all sorts of festivals and events, but they also have it in the car park of our local farm shop several evenings a week over the summer.

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Our favourite take-away

One of the reasons we are so keen (apart from the delicious food) is their ethos:

All our food is made from scratch, using only the freshest, quality ingredients…We are committed to sourcing locally where possible. We buy farm fresh welsh beef, chicken & pork from our local butcher. Cheese that’s made just up the road, we grow our own & source vegetables & herbs from local farms when in season. We like to be kind to our planet & use only Bio-degradable takeaway containers.

But after a few visits, we decided that whist bio-degradable containers are good, reusing containers over and over is better. So, we’ve started taking our own. Finally last night, I remembered to take my camera and got round to taking some photos, which naturally led to a conversation about the subject. And the up-shot? They are now considering encouraging customers to bring their own containers and offering a discount to those who do. How great is that?

 

 

Pack up your lettuce…

For many years now we have bought much of our meat by mail order from a company specialising in organic produce. Up until out latest order they always sent a pre-paid address label so that we could return and they could re-use the insulated packaging. Our last parcel, however did not contain the label. I enquired, only to discover that the cost of postage has made return of the polystyrene boxes uneconomic. I’m so cross about this… repeated reuse of packaging is such a great idea.

Our local council do accept polystyrene for recycling, but I really didn’t want to take advantage of this unless absolutely necessary*. We thought about paying for the boxes to be returned or even dropping them off when we are over in that direction, but I’m not sure whether the company would accept them back (I will check next time). So, they have been sitting in our hallway whilst I waited for inspiration to strike – which it did on Saturday whilst I was planting seeds.

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Not the most exciting picture ever posted… compost in a polystyrene box

I had two boxes, so I stabbed a few holes in the bottom of one, chucked in some compost, sowed some winter lettuce seeds and covered it with its lid. And there was a nice insulated growing space for some winter leaves. I’m keeping it in the limery and hopefully I will have a crop from it in a few weeks time. Having decided to focus on growing, I am keeping the other box for cultivating mushrooms. I ordered some mushroom spawn (the fungal equivalent of seeds) last week and when it arrives, I’ll use the the second polystyrene box as a mushroom propagator.

Of course, I can’t find a use for a never-ending supply of polystyrene boxes, but at least the current ones are turning out to be useful. I will find out whether the meat company would be prepared to take any other ones we receive back and will return them at our cost if possible, but for now I’m satisfied to have found good uses for something it would have been all too easy to consign to the recycling.

-oOo-

* It’s generally more energy-efficient (and therefore, greener) to re-use or re-purpose than to recycle.

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!

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.

Reduce your use

Tomorrow marks the beginning of National Recycle Week, with the aim this year being:

to get us all thinking about all the items we can recycle from around the home that we might not previously have thought about recycling (Recycle Now)

Now, I think this is a great idea. We should all think more carefully about what we can recycle. However, I think that recycling is similar in some ways to carbon off-setting, in that it gives us ‘permission’ to carry on as before with the same level of consumption. Telling ourselves that it’s ok to keep buying ‘stuff’ and using resources because they can be recycled is really not sustainable at current levels of consumption. Recycling takes energy, but less than production from raw materials:

It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Making recycled steel saves 60%, recycled newspaper 40%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%. These savings far outweigh the energy created as by-products of incineration and landfilling. (Stark State College)

But it still takes energy – and there can be other negative outputs, such as from the bleaching and de-inking processes in paper recycling. So, whilst recycling should be one of our ways to be more sustainable, it shouldn’t be our first one. It would be much better if we didn’t actually use the object or resource in the first place. If you don’t accept the plastic carrier bag offered to you in the supermarket and instead use a cotton bag or a basket or a box of your own, then one less bag will be in circulation and it will never need disposing of at the end of its life.

Reducing consumption is a much more effective way of saving the planet, and if you do already own ‘stuff’ then, when it comes to the end of its, life consider whether it could be repaired or re-used or repurposed. And if you get fed up and want a change, why not try a bit of adaptation, embellishment or upcycling? All these approaches encourage us to be creative – to see our ‘stuff’ in different ways and to think about our options.

So this National Recycle Week I will be:

Reuse = Reduce

Reuse = Reduce

  • repairing some pyjamas (and thus not buying new ones)
  • buying my fruit and vegetables loose and using my own bags
  • sorting through all my old teaching notes, extracting the paper for use in the garden and saving all the cardboard folders, lever-arch files, box files and poly-pockets for reuse
  • opening my post with a letter opener so that I can use the envelopes again with the aid of some envelope reuse labels
  • and continuing to look for ways to be creative with my ever-increasing pile of OHP transparencies… before I give up and send them to Emily in the US to get them recycled!
  • oh, and recycling too… I always do.
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