Nicely packaged

by Patricia Collins

Back in the Brownies, I learned to tie a parcel.  One evening we trooped into the church hall with brown paper (brought from home and saved from the last parcel that arrived in the house) and string. After the toadstool gathering, the salute and the promise, we set to on empty cereal packets and shoe boxes with just that brown paper and string, a slip knot, round turns, half hitches and reef knots to finish off.  Oh and scissors – proper sharp scissors and 20 little girls bursting with excitement. At the end of the evening we handed in the scissors and took our parcels home with the reminder to untie them carefully and save the paper and string ‘for next time’. This was the Health and Safety and environmental thinking of the day!

A delivery this week – ALL the plastic you can see is tape

I can still tie a neat parcel, but today I’m back at my desk drawer and pondering the problem of sellotape.  For those outside of England – Scotch tape, sticky tape, plastic adhesive tape. And there you have it.  It’s taken me almost all my post-Brownie years to realise that Sellotape is plastic and in that time I have created a much loved and appreciated collection: double sided tape, parcel tape, masking tape, electrical tape and all in several different widths. All of it plastic, all of it non-biodegradable, all of it potentially harmful to our environment.

It’s New Year and I’m sure I’m not the only one full of good resolutions, but what to do? Return to Brownie skills? Get rid of the collection and how? Or use up this store? 

  • don’t use sellotape to re-seal used envelopes etc. Gummed paper labels and staples do this job well
  • don’t use it to mend books or other paper-based documents. It’s the archivist’s pet hate as it leaves stains and weaknesses that can never be made good . gummed brown paper works well inside book jackets or a very thin piece of bandage pasted on pages
  • don’t make sellotape the first choice- think before reaching for the roll of sticky tape – can the job be done another way?

Are there other ways of lessening my environmental impact? I’d welcome your suggestions. Meantime I’ll remember that Brownie promise ‘do your best’


The Snail’s solution

This thought-provoking post from Patricia arrived on the same day that I received the parcel in the photograph above, from a “green” grocery store. All that plastic tape made me wince. I carefully peeled it off and the cardboard went into the compost, but the tape has to go to landfill, I think. When I am packing a parcel myself, I use paper parcel tape and, increasingly, I see that parcels arrive sealed with this. And, of course, there are marvellous companies who ensure that all their packaging is plastic-fee: All Natural Soap Company and Roasting House are two who are helping me keep my consumption of single-use plastics down, although I know how privileged I am to be in a position to make these choices.

Plastic is news

Since I last wrote, I’ve been seeing a huge amount in the media about the evils of single-use plastics. It feels like, finally, the rest of the world is catching up with what many of us have known for ages. I’ve seen discussions about un-recyclable coffee cups, drinks bottles, straws, microbeads, microfibres, plastic bags, cotton buds, vegetables wrapped in plastic… the list goes on. I hope that if you’ve read my posts over the years, the issue will not come as a big surprise to you. Perhaps it’s something you have already taken action on – remember every piece of plastic we don’t use, is one less that could become pollution. Some bigger things are afoot, however, as this wave of public concern starts to penetrate the consciousness of politicians and makes retailers and manufacturers worry that sales will suffer. For example:

  • Here in the UK a ban on microbeads in cosmetics came into force earlier this month.
  • There is increasing pressure for a deposit scheme on plastic drinks bottles, and this is the recommendation of the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee in a recent report.
  • The supermarket Iceland announced this week that they plan to eliminate plastic packaging from all their own-brand products within five years.

But it is important to remember that you don’t have to wait for someone else to take action or to make a difference. You can vote with your wallet and you can, as an individual, make a difference. It’s easy enough to find lists of simple changes to make – say no to plastic straws and disposable coffee cups, buy cotton buds with paper sticks, take your own shopping bags and so on. You might, however, think a bit more creatively.


home made moisturiser

Cosmetics are particular culprit when it comes to over-packaging, but it is possible to cut down on this if you think about your purchases. It’s easy enough to buy soap in paper rather than plastic, for example. I always used to use shower gel because I found soap too harsh on my skin, but a little bit of experimenting and I’ve found lovely mild soaps that I use all the time now. Similarly, I’ve stopped buying liquid hand-wash and now just use bar soap – my favourite in the kitchen is one that has coffee grounds in it to act as a mild abrasive (what a great alternative to tiny bits of plastic). I also use solid shampoo now, which again comes plastic-free. These days I make my own moisturiser (and I also supply my sister with it) because I got so fed up with all the packaging and the difficulty in avoiding palm oil. The ingredients do come in small plastic bags, but the amount of single-use plastic involved is tiny compared to the lotions and potions I could buy in my local chemist (drug store). In addition, it’s fun to make and very easy (I started with a kit from Aromantic).

In fact, if you have time, making all sorts of things yourself can cut down on plastics. My homemade biscuits involve relatively little plastic packaging (cocoa container lid, golden syrup lid, organic chocolate chips bag) and absolutely no palm oil. My bread only encounters single-use plastic around the yeast and salt, and my leek and potato soup is plastic-packaging free. I know it takes time to shop for plastic-free ingredients and then to combine them into the food you want to eat, but it is such a worthwhile activity – healthier for you and for the planet.


Cocktail time

Mr Snail and I have a favourite pub where we go to for dinner and sometimes for breakfast. A few months ago, however, we were browsing the cocktails menu (like you do) and discovered one that we’d both really like to try. There were two problems, however. First it was breakfast time, so it was a bit early in the day. Second, the particular cocktail in question has got lots of crushed ice in it and really needs to be drunk through a straw. Neither of us want to be responsible for adding to the mountain of unrecyclable plastic of which drinking straws are one component.

Our desire for cocktails isn’t constant and so it was only after new year that I remembered. A little bit of a search and I found a small company on etsy selling these lovely things, complete with carrying bag and cleaning brush:

They are now residing in my handbag, ready for use. We just need to a sunny day, so we can stroll down and enjoy our drinks… plastic-free and without the need to drive afterwards!

Plastic diet

Currently we are a week into Plastic-free July:

The challenge is quite simple. Attempt to refuse single-use plastic during July. “Single-use” includes plastic shopping bags, plastic cups, straws, plastic packaging…basically anything that’s intended only to be used once and then discarded. If refusing ALL single-use plastic sounds too daunting this time, try the TOP 4 challenge (plastic bags, bottles, takeaway coffee cups & straws).

It may be ‘quite simple’ to write down, but trying to cut single-use plastics out of my life completely is very difficult in the world I occupy. In fact, although I don’t use anywhere near as much single-use plastic as I might, there’s still quite a bit coming into our house and going out via the recycling.

If I really wanted to cut out single-use plastic completely , I’d have to make a lot of changes to my diet and my life in general. However, the TOP 4 challenge outlined above is way behind me:

  • I’ve been using cloth shopping bags for years – many are home-made from fabric off-cuts, and I also have my crochet string bag.
  • We use bamboo charcoal to improve the quality of the tap water we drink, and have (metal) water bottles to transport it in when we are out and about.
  • We have insulated cups to use on the rare occasions that we have take-out coffee. Mine was bought in Boston MA more than 15 years ago.
  • I can’t remember when I last used a straw; apart from anything else, they are bad because they encourage you to suck your drink between your teeth, where it’s difficult to clean.

We've already dealt with the TOP 4

We’ve already dealt with the TOP 4

I have cut down on the use of other plastics too, for example: making my own granola means that many of the ingredients (oats, mixed seeds, malted wheat) come in paper bags (which I compost) although I can’t yet source paper-packaged pumpkin seeds and dates; buying from our local farms and greengrocers means completely packaging-free or at least paper-wrapped vegetables; growing our own food eliminates all packaging; using loose tea not tea bags takes out that source of hidden plastic; taking our own containers when we buy tea and coffee and using locally-made soap means no packaging. In addition, we try to reuse as much plastic as possible, for example saving and reusing plastic posting bags and padded envelopes.

Some things, though, I can’t find a plastic-free option for. Milk and yoghurt, at least round here, only seem to come in plastic containers. I try to minimise plastic by buying in large containers – more product per unit of plastic – but it would be lovely to have access to milk in glass bottles or to be able to take my own container to be filled. I often make my own yoghurt, but the milk still comes in a plastic bottle to begin with.

So, I’ve decided that I can’t eliminate single-use plastics from my life entirely, but I can do more than I have been… and that’s what I’m going to do (and write a bit about) this month. And so, I’m embarking on a ‘single-use plastic diet’… I’ll let you know how I get on!

Oh… and if you’ve read the suggestion (I’ve seen it on blogs and Facebook several times) that all the plastic ever made is still in existence, I can tell you that this is not quite true… if you burn it, it stops being plastic, but may turn into ‘nasities’ in the air and residue. However, take heart, because there are bacteria that can help us; take a look at the film below to be inspired by a couple of young women scientists and the work they have been doing:



In the bag

A bag I made (left) and a bag I bought (right)

A bag I made (left) and a bag I bought (right)

One of the simplest things that anyone can do to be a little bit more sustainable is to stop using plastic carrier bags. Here in Wales they are no longer given free in shops and this encourages lots of people to have their own shopping bags. Perhaps the simplest option is the cotton bag – easy to carry around until needed, washable and ultimately compostable. We have lots of these – in the car, in the house and in handbag/pockets. Some of them have been given as gifts, some as freebies from shops/companies, but quite a number of them I have made myself.

All our bought or free bags are a simple envelope of cotton – two pieces stitched together flat. This means that they fold up small, but they do not hold a lot. This design is not ideal for bulkier items or carrying lots of books, for example. I have, therefore, made some cotton bags that have a much greater capacity because they have a gusset. After a bit of experimentation my mum came up with a relatively straightforward design for these that can be made from only two pieces of fabric (or one if it’s long and thin) plus the handles.

First of all, choose a nice sturdy cotton fabric, after all you don’t want it to tear or give way under the weight of your shopping. The size you need depends on how big you want your bag to be, but I started off with two oblongs measuring about 55cm by 40cm (22 inches by 16 inches):

An existing bag on the fabric for a new bag

An existing bag on the fabric for a new bag

These I stitched together (right sides facing), leaving one of the short sides open and then I hemmed the top of the bag.

Sewing the main pieces together

Sewing the main pieces together

Now comes the bit that’s easy to do, but slightly complicated to explain. At each of the bottom corners, you need to flatten the seam along what will be the bottom of the bag (the  short seam) against the side seam to form a point. Then you stitch at right angles 3-4 cm away from the point, to separate off the corners into little right-angled triangles.

Flatten the bottom against the sides

Flatten the bottom against the sides and form points at the corners

Open out the bottom seam to do this

Open out the bottom seam to do this

Pin it first to make sure you’ve got it right and if you want to check, turn the bag right-side-out and you should have formed a gusset for the base of the bag. When you are happy, sew these short seams on the inside and turn the bag right side out. You will be left with two little triangular flaps of fabric inside the bag.

Pin and stitch at right angles to the long seams

Pin and stitch at right angles to the long seams

The outside should look like this

The outside should look like this (ignore the pins for now, they are for the next step)

The inside will look like this

The inside will look like this

Now all you need to do is sew along the edges between the gusset and the main sides of the bag (in each case sew on the right side and don’t go quite as far as the corner) to give the bag structure.

Side gusset edges pinned and ready for stitching

Side gusset edges pinned and ready for stitching

Bottom gusset edges

Bottom gusset edges

All edges stitched

All edges stitched

You can then make handles out of tubes of fabric or webbing of the desired length and attach these firmly to the top of the bag.

The finished bag

The finished bag

Once you get the hang of it, this is a really easy pattern. You can even line the bag by making an inner in exactly the same way and attaching them wrong sides together. If you don’t sew, this probably all sounds like gobbledygook to you, but if you do sew and have a sewing machine, it’s a great way to use up fabric… the bag I made and photographed for this post was created using a piece of material I have had for about 30 years!! I am hoping that my homemade bags will last many years, whilst I see some of the bought ones falling to pieces already.

What the SLS?

I really shouldn’t write a blog… especially posts addressing my ethical dilemmas. Every time I do, I just open up a whole new can of worms for myself. The first time it happened was about knitting yarn ethics… to such an extent that I actually ended up making a whole can of yarn worms:


Yesterday’s post was about single-use plastics, but initiated a discussion about shampoo, leading me to start looking at various packaging-free or reduced packaging shampoo options. One of the manufacturers suggested was Lush, who make shampoo bars that some commenters really like and a bit of internet research revealed that there are several ‘green’ writers who endorse these products (Ecohustler, for example). So, I headed over to the Lush website to look at what they have to offer. I know that some Lush products are very highly scented and this is no good for me because perfumes make me sneeze (a lot), so I thought that I would look at the ingredients to see what they were likely to smell of. And at this point, I discovered that all Lush shampoo bars list Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) as an ingredient.For example, the ingredients of the Lush Trichomania shampoo bar are:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearic Acid, Creamed Coconut, Glyceryl Stearate & PEG-100 Stearate, Cocamide DEA, Soya Lecithin, Perfume, Vetivert Oil

Now I have heard that SLS is not good and I’m not a big fan of products that contain soya and what on earth are PEG-100 Stearate and Cocamide DEA? Well, apparently PEG-100 Stearate is an emulsifier and Cocamide DEA is a surfactant that either dissolves grease or is a foaming agent (depending on which web site you read). The latter is now illegal in California, as it is considered a carcinogen. As for SLS, there is conflicting information on the web, the web site SLS Free says that

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (commonly known as SLS) is a widely used chemical in personal hygiene products, along with Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS).

SLS is essentially a foaming agent in products such as soaps, detergents, shampoos, toothpastes and detergents along with some industrial cleaning products such as engine degreaser, floor cleaning products and car wash. It is also widely used as a skin irritant when testing products used to heal skin irritations.

They go on to say that

At this point in time there is no scientific evidence that links the use of SLS to Cancer.


In addition to skin irritation, there are studies that point to residual levels of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in the brain, lungs, liver, and heart. These levels follow the use of SLS used externally on the scalp and skin, and in the mouth as an ingredient in toothpaste.

There are some findings that link the ingredient to a hormone imbalance. Symptoms such as PMS and PMT and menopausal symptoms are tied to hormone levels. There has been a lower rate of male fertility reported in some cases, particularly in western countries however this is as yet unsubstantiated. Because SLS mimics oestrogen, it is possible it may play a role in these types of health issues.

In contrast, the Personal Care, Truth or Scare website is much more reassuring, stating that ‘by all green standards SLS is the perfect ingredient’ and there is no problem using it in ‘wash-off’ products. I’m not convinced about anything being ‘perfect’ and would take this claim with quite a pinch of salt considering that I subsequently discovered that much SLS is made from palm oil, at least according to the Say No to Palm Oil website, which rather shatters its green credentials. Lush are quiet about what their SLS is made from… it could be coconut oil, but I simply don’t know.

Single-use plastics, but what's inside?

Single-use plastics, but what’s inside?

Anyway, with all these questions about ingredients in the Lush soap bars, I thought I’d look at another product that yesterday’s readers had suggested, namely Faith in Nature shampoo. Now, the problem here is that using this would not cut out single-use plastics, but could significantly reduce them by buying in bulk. I already use FIN aloe shampoo in small bottles and could easily convert to buying it in 5l containers, so what is in that? The ingredients are listed as:

Aqua, Ammonium laureth sulfate, Maris sal, Aloe barbadensis leaf juice, Polysorbate 20, Cocamidopropyl betaine, Citrus limon peel oil, Citrus aurantifolia oil, Melaleuca alternifolia leaf oil, Potassium sorbate, Sodium benzoate, Citric acid, CI 75810, Citral, Limonene

Well, I know that Aqua is water, and I’m ok with that , apart from the transportation issues. The words that I have italicised are botanical names of plants (trust me, I’m a plant ecologist!) and I’m happy with using the essential oils from those, and maris sal is sea salt. But what about that Ammonium laureth sulfate? It sounds awfully like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate to me. Back to Googling again…

I found what looks like a really well researched page on the Green People website (I sometimes use their shampoo too) that answers the question (and gives lots more info on SLS). They say:

There are several other surfactants with similar names to SLS – in particular ammonium lauryl sulphate and ammonium laureth sulphate. Although these sound very similar their molecular structure is significantly different and they do not have the same potential to irritate the skin. Also, because their molecules are larger than those of SLS, they are not able to pass through the skin and therefore cannot be absorbed into the body in the same way. Because of these differences, ammonium lauryl and laureth sulphates are considered to be milder and safer alternatives to SLS.

So that sounds like a better option. As to the other ingredients Polysorbate 20 is another emulsifier, and can be contaminated according to this website. I guess any ingredient can be contaminated and we have to choose whether we trust the supplier. Cocamidopropyl betaine is a surfactant (giving the shampoo it’s lathering and cleansing properties) and can cause skin irritation, but is not considered a particularly ‘bad’ ingredient according to the notes at the bottom of the Chemical of the Day website from Bumblebee Organics. Potassium sorbate is a preservative and can be an irritant, but is used in food as well as personal care products (more details here); similarly, sodium benzoate is a preservative and whilst there are some concerns about its use in foodstuffs, it is reportedly safe in skin care products. Citric acid is fine with me and it turns out that CI 75810 is chlorophyll… clearly used to colour the shampoo. Both Citral and Limonene occur naturally in citrus as well as in other plants and are used as fragrances.

So, on balance, the Faith in Nature shampoo seems better than the Lush in terms of ingredients. But there is more to consider: liquid shampoo contains lots of water and thus adds to transportation costs compared to solid shampoo. The liquid shampoo is also sold in those pesky single-use bottles. But, by buying it in 5l containers, the amount of plastic is reduced and I get a sturdy receptacle that I will use again in the house or garden.

Yet again, when making ethical choices there isn’t a simple ‘right’ answer. I just wish, like Rachel who commented yesterday, I had a herbalist down the road who made their own and would refill a bottle for me… lucky Rachel!


I should say that all this research relies on finding reliable websites. I have seen many sites that appear to be scaremongering and many that seem to be marketing specific products. I have tried to use sources that look sensible, but I may have been duped! It appears that if you type the name of any chemical into Google, you can find sites telling you that it is a carcinogen or an irritant… I guess most things are in certain circumstances or high enough concentrations. Certainly plant essential oils can be really dangerous if used inappropriately. If you find a site that seems to be well referenced (like the Green People page I mention above) I think you can be more confident that it’s factually correct, but you never know. Researching this sort of thing is a complete minefield and very time-consuming, but hopefully I have started to present some useful information for you to make some informed choices.

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?

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