All present and correct

How are your festive preparations going?

Are you the sort of person who spends months dashing about shopping, organising and decorating the house for whatever festivities you are celebrating? Are you preparing to welcome family and friends into your home? Will you be rushing out to lots of parties? Or will you be having a peaceful time over the next few weeks, watching the madness from the safety of your armchair?

And, most importantly, have you bought everyone a present?

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Are you ready for the magic of the season? 

What? You haven’t? But didn’t you know that you can only express your love by presenting everyone with a physical item? I doesn’t matter whether they actually want the thing you have bought for them. What matters is that you gave them something… even if it is a plastic fish in a Santa hat that sings Jingle Bells, or an inflatable Eiffel Tower, or a box of inedible shortbread in the shape of a fir tree. Even if it is something that will be (at best) amusing when they open the gift and will almost certainly be in landfill after week or two or consigned to a cupboard until the next spring clean. Even if it is something made in a sweatshop by someone who is little more than a slave. Even if it does deplete the earth’s limited resources. Just remember… the important thing is that you spent some money… that you gave a gift…

Me? Don’t expect a gift from me at this time of year. Don’t expect to find me trawling the shops for that hard-to-find toy or searching the internet for a gift for my mother (who firmly tells me that she has everything she wants). It’s not that I don’t care for you (or her), in fact it’s that I do care for you and her and for other human beings and for the planet.

Before you buy that box of Christmas crackers with the silly jokes, paper hats and plastic prizes, or the amusing Christmas jumper that will be worn once, or the new set of ornaments for the tree because this year’s theme is silver and pink, whilst last year’s was green and red, you might like to consider this:

Guess what percentage of total material flow through [the] system is still in product or use 6 months after their sale in North America. Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport—99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months. Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff.

I don’t know about you, but I find that figure shocking. However, we can all do something about it. And we can start by not buying things that we KNOW will get thrown away almost immediately.

At this time of giving and generosity, why not think about the recipient rather than the act of giving? If someone tells you that there is nothing they want for Christmas, they are probably telling you that they don’t want any more stuff… so give them the gift of time… it never goes out of fashion and it never enters land fill. Go out for afternoon tea, for a walk, go to the pub, cook them dinner, do some chores for them, have a chat… spend some quality time together. And if you do want to give a physical gift, make it a good one… something that will last, something they will love, something that won’t be discarded as soon as the wrapping paper is off. Think about the gift… and if you can’t find something that they will love, don’t buy anything right now…. give them an IOU… you know they are likely to get more joy from a gift at another time of the year than at a time when they have a whole heap in front of them.

We practice random acts of giving… our friends and relatives do receive gifts, but not at specific times. And sometimes they receive gifts or help or time in quick succession and sometimes not for ages. We send or do things as we become inspired. This means that one lucky person will get a parcel soon because Mr Snail and I are making a gift together, but not because it’s Christmas, just because we had an idea and thought of something fun to make that one particular person would enjoy.

As for Christmas day Chez Snail… we will be gift-free and are planning a picnic in the limery!

 

 

 

 

More oddments, bigger oddments

Well, it turns out that I’m much more of a squirrel than even I realised. Once I started investigating my collection of yarn scraps after the popularity of my Scraptastic hat, I found that not only did I have two more bags of little bits of yarn, but any number of small balls left over from past projects just waiting to be used. So, I made a whole pile of reversible scraptastic hats:

Lots more hats... various sizes

Lots more hats… various sizes

Then I thought it would be good to try something different and make a stripy hat to use up some of the bigger oddments. So I threw caution to the wind, eschewed the use of a pattern and came up with this:

A very silly hat

A very silly hat

I haven’t made a pompom for about 40 years, but I discovered that I haven’t lost the knack. I don’t think I’ll be making many hats like this as this one took ages, but hopefully someone will find it appealing.

Now I have to make a jellyfish (I’m testing out a pattern for Jenny over at Simply Hooked), two knockers (yes really… follow the link if you don’t know about knitting breasts) and then I want to experiment with a hat with ear flaps… there’s never a dull moment chez snail and everything (except the knockers) is being made out of yarn oddments.

Farewell rubbish bed

We now have a date for the builders to arrive to start construction of the conservatory. This means that there are some jobs to be completed… one of which we tackled this morning, namely the emptying of the “rubbish bed”.

I have written several times in the past about the woeful lack of soil in our garden when we moved into our house. This was because the topsoil had been stripped away and sold off when the house was built. The only solution was for us to build raised beds and create our own soil. We did buy some topsoil in to get started, but we have also made tonnes of compost over the 15 years we have been here. Perhaps our greatest success was the rubbish bed – constructed from upended paving slabs and filled with all sorts of waste material: cardboard, shredded paper, wood-chip, moss raked out of a friend’s lawn, fallen leaves, spent potting compost, garden compost, grass clippings, wood ash, teabags, to rot down in situ and generate soil and a bit of heat for the plants too.

The 'four sisters' bed

The “rubbish bed” in all its glory in 2013

However, this bed now has to go to make way for the conservatory, properly drained patio and a new, block-built raised bed. So, in glorious sunshine this morning, we emptied out the most amazing compost/soil (all home-made) and transferred it onto other beds and into two dumpy bags that we then planted up with potatoes. The soil that we had created was packed full of earthworms and had the most fabulous texture. It’s a bitter-sweet activity – I am so proud of what we have created from “rubbish”, but very sad that this area of garden will no longer exist (it has been amazingly productive).

Most of the site of the rubbish bed is destined to become a patio, but part of the footprint will coincide with a much deeper raised bed… which, in its turn, will be filled with new compost all created from waste: we already have two of our neighbours trained to deliver their grass clippings, and a friend has some moss to contribute.

So, farewell “rubbish bed” and thank you. Here’s to much more in situ compost making and productivity.

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

It’s Zero Waste Week

It’s already day two (just), but it’s not too late! I’m not a great one for signing up to challenges like this (although I know that lots of people find that they provide a good incentive), but I am particularly taken with this year’s theme: One More Thing. So, I’ve been thinking about one more thing we could do…

Chez Snail, we don’t produce much landfill-type waste – a small bag every month, perhaps. Food waste is minimal too, partly because eating fresh from the garden means that what isn’t harvested to be eaten straight away carries on growing, and partly because we don’t over-shop and we are happy to eat left-overs. But we do send quite a bit for recycling – maybe one rubbish sack every two weeks, so I’m sure there is room for improvement here.

We could cut down on the number of superfluous things that we buy and this would reduce the amount of packaging that we throw away and (in theory) reduce the amount of stuff we discard because we have a newer or better version. In practice, however, we aren’t big consumers, so trying to do this probably wouldn’t make a huge difference.

What a waste!

So, the only way forward is to buy things with less packaging… and perhaps to try to persuade manufacturers to use less packaging. I’m always irritated by things that come with superfluous layers of sealed plastic wrap… why does a dvd need to be shrink-wrapped – it’s hardly going to go off, is it? Electrical items seem to be particularly bad for quantity of packaging, something I have bogged about previously in relation to a small set of headphones I bought. Indeed, a recent purchase of a breadmaker for Mr Snail seemed to yield rather more plastic, polystyrene and cardboard than was strictly necessary (did the pan really need to be in a separate plastic bag?). I gather, however, that amongst the worst offenders in terms of packaging are perfumes and high-end cosmetics, especially those in ‘gift packs’. Since these are items that I never buy, I cannot speak from experience, but in such cases, it appears that the manufacturers consider that more packaging makes for a classier product. SIGH.

The Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN – a British organisation) do produce a factsheet that explains the reasons for some of the packaging that we might think is excessive, although they also say:

But if you still think that a product seems to be over-packaged, contact the retailer or manufacturer to complain, or call 08454 04 05 06 or go on-line to Consumer Direct at www.consumerdirect.gov.uk so that trading standards officials can investigate. Over-packaging is against the law.

Indeed, they produce another factsheet entitled Packaging and Environment Legislation, which provides some context. Do remember, though, that INCPEN is run by manufacturers and retailers, not consumers or environmentalists. Still, it’s a start.

Too much for a set of headphones?

A few years ago there was a campaign to try to persuade supermarkets to encourage their suppliers to use less packaging. The idea was that shoppers would remove excess packaging at the checkout and leave it there for the supermarket to deal with. I’m not sure what impact it had, but I suspect that manufacturers were so far removed from the action that they hardly noticed and the supermarkets probably just cleared up without much comment. It’s probably better to contact manufacturers directly… at least that way you are communicating with someone who has the potential to do something about the issue.

And after all this pondering, what am I, The Snail of Happiness, going to do for Zero Waste Week? Well since I’m finding it difficult to further reduce the waste that goes out of the house, I think I’m going to take a look at the waste that stays in my house: the objects that are packed away unused, or simply sitting around gathering dust. I’m going to convert these things into something useful by sending them to a charity shop, or selling them or simply making use of them myself. I think some rummaging around in cupboards, drawers, the airing cupboard and the loft is in order…

 

Oh, poo!

Over the past few days, a link to an article on the Guardian website has been doing the rounds on Facebook (at least in the circles I mix in, which are mainly related to sustainability). It’s entitled Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design and explains why we might not want to keep our toothbrush next to our toilet and why it’s such an environmental issue to mix the water we wash our hands in with the waste we flush down the toilet.

Basically, the issue with water disposal is that grey water (from washing) can safely be used to irrigate the land, whilst black water (from the toilet) needs to be processed to make it safe. By mixing the two together, we end up with a lot more highly contaminated water that has to be processed in some way. According to the Guardian:

Over 10bn litres of sewage are produced every day in England and Wales. It takes approximately 6.34 GW hours of energy to treat this volume of sewage, almost 1% of the average daily electricity consumption of England and Wales.

I don’t know what the figures would be if we separated the two sorts of water, but I know they would be significantly lower. The real issue in my mind, however, is that we see everything that goes down the drain as a problem – all waste water is pollution in the current paradigm. What we need to do is realise that, in fact, all waste water is a resource… faeces and urine contain valuable nutrients, and water itself is an increasingly rare commodity globally.

And if we are thinking about fertility, The nitrogen fertiliser industry is big business, closely tied in with fossil fuels… according to the International Plant Nutrition Index:

All N fertilizer begins with a source of hydrogen gas and atmospheric N that are reacted to form ammonia. The most-used source of hydrogen is natural gas (methane). Other sources of hydrogen, such as coal, are used in some regions. After hydrogen and N are combined under conditions of high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, many other important N-containing fertilizers can then be made. Urea is the most common N fertilizer, but there are many excellent N fertilizers that can be made from ammonia. For example, some ammonia is oxidized to make nitrate fertilizer. This same conversion of ammonia to nitrate takes place in agricultural soils through the microbial process of nitrification.

Because the production of hydrogen gas required for the synthesis of ammonia largely comes from natural gas, the price of this primary feedstock is the major factor in the cost of ammonia production. Ammonia factories sometimes close or open in various parts of the world in response to fluctuating gas prices. Higher energy costs always translate into higher prices for all N fertilizers. (IPNI)

The classic image of a compost toilet

The classic image of a compost toilet

So, we flush great fertiliser away down the toilet (remember a key function of urine is to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies), pay for that to be treated to make it safe and then pay even more to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to apply to the land to grow crops. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem sensible. Why not turn the waste into a useful resource and avoid a whole bunch of pollution?

I know that most people are squeamish about composting toilets and they are currently not readily available for use in ‘normal’ houses, but technology is changing. Soon, you won’t have to deal with the waste yourself if you want to avoid the standard flush toilet, and you wont have to have a compost loo in the garden either. Take a look at Toilet Revolution if you want to see a whole range of options suitable for real homes.

 

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!

Blankies

Sissie snuggling in her blankie

Sissie snuggling in her blankie

Last year Patty and Perkin loaned us a dvd; the film was called Lars and the Real Girl. Have you seen it? It’s rather odd, but very endearing and a story that, at the end, you really wish was true because you want to believe that there actually are communities that care enough about their members to overlook their odd behaviour. However, this post is not really about the film, it’s just that the main character – Lars, a sad and troubled man – has a beautiful baby shawl that his mother (who died at his birth) knitted for him whilst she was pregnant. He wears the shawl as a scarf, giving him comfort and acting as a security blanket. I found this rather touching (despite it being fictional) and it inspired me when I found out that Patty was expecting a baby.

I don’t really enjoy knitting the sort of lace shawl featured in the film and, anyway, all those fine threads are just asking for little fingers to get tangled in them, so I made a much more serviceable blankie for little Sissie. It’s got a simple knitted pattern to add a bit of interest and I made it with Sirdar’s Simply Recycled yarn, which is more than 50% recycled cotton and easily washable (another important consideration with items for babies). Apparently, Sissie is rarely without her blankie… I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have made two of them so there was a chance for washing!

A new blankie from left-overs... it will be creams and yellows with a cornflower blue border

A new blankie from left-overs… it will be creams and yellows with a cornflower blue border

Another of my friends is also expecting a baby. This one is due in the autumn, so a warmer blankie seems in order and this time I have decided to exercise my new crocheting skills and make one out of granny squares. The yarn I’m using is left over from someone else’s baby projects and was bought for a few pounds on e-bay… as usual, it feels good to be turning waste into useful items. It also feels good to avoid jumping on the baby gifts bandwagon. So many new-borns are showered with brand new stuff, which is then hardly used. Perkin and Patty specifically asked family and friends to avoid this consumer-madness, so my gift was made specifically with this in mind… even down to the choice of yarn. Avoiding waste is an approach that permeates their lives, from gardening to running their delightful holiday cottage, so it is natural for them to want the same ethics for their family.

A little bit of internet research reveals how much new parents do spend on a baby, even before it’s born. An article on Netmums from last year states:

…new parents are spending 13% more on their new baby than they did three years ago and are forking out an average of £2,538 before their baby is born. One reason is thought to be that they are copying celebrities who are photographed with the latest ‘must-have’ strollers and baby clothes and equipment. In a poll new mums admitted they were inspired by ‘A-list’ lifestyles and many also said any money sense flew out of the window when it came to buying for their baby. The survey found that newborns in Britain have a £600 wardrobe, £180 toy collection and a nursery costing £463 in furnishings and decorations.

EEKK! And that doesn’t cover all those presents that come with the birth of a baby and the spending afterwards. Well, I’ve been assured that Sissie’s blankie was most welcome and that her pre-birth spend was nowhere near that amount. I’m sure the same will be true for the other imminent arrival and since she is going to be a third child, there will be lots of hand-me-downs as well as the blankie from me.

I hope that Sissie, like Lars, will continue to value her blankie into adulthood (although for different reasons) and if it ever wears out, I can always make her a new one… possible recyled/upcycled from something else!

Sissie in her blankie in the garden at High Bank

Sissie in her blankie in the garden at High Bank… perhaps they found her under a gooseberry bush!

… and that other source of fertilizer…

The end product - composted human waste

The end product – composted human waste

Having written about urine as a source of nitrogen recently, I feel compelled to also mention that other sort of human waste that can be composted and used to enhance fertility. This seems to be increasingly referred to as ‘humanure’, but we’re really talking poo.

An aquatron composting toilet can be installed in a two-storey house

An Aquatron composting toilet can be installed in a two-storey house

When you live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street it’s fairly difficult to make use of this resource, although the Aquatron composting toilet can be fitted in an upstairs bathroom and there are other technical options such as the Separett range which require a fan to be run constantly, thus using electricity.  And so here, chez snail, this is one source of fertility that we don’t exploit. However, if you live in a different setting (as a number of my friends do) then you can collect and process humanure and use it to improve the fertility of your land. Many and varied are the compost loos that I have visited, but strangely I have very few pictures! The one thing they all seem to have in common is how civilised and un-smelly they are – often beautifully decorated.

Composting humanure at Karuna: it's initially collected in the dusbins before being transferred into the big bays behind

Composting humanure at Karuna: it’s initially collected in the dusbins before being transferred into the big bays behind

In some cases all waste is collected in a deep pit below the toilet structure and simply covered with a sprinkling of wood-shavings after each ‘deposit’, before it is eventually closed off, and allowed to compost for up to a couple of years. In others the waste is collected in a receptacle of some sort before being removed and composted away from the toilet itself. The latter is how the compost toilets work at Karuna, but in addition they ask users to separate urine (which is composted with straw) from solid waste (which goes into their large composting bins, tucked away behind the polytunnel). Interestingly, the process at Karuna seems to generate no smell and the end product is an appealing-looking compost that they have used extensively on site to enhance tree growth. So, whilst this is not an option open to everyone, it’s interesting to know that our waste need not go to waste.

Inspecting the end product at Karuna

Inspecting the end product at Karuna

Confidential waste

Yesterday’s post elicited a comment from Nanacathy that the only thing she burns in the garden is confidential waste. I responded that I have friend who shreds his, then puts it on the compost heap and then pees on it. He considers that if anyone wants to reconstruct his bank statements and steal his identity after that they are welcome.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Similarly, we shred anything that is confidential or has our address on it. But we then use it as chicken bedding. This is a two-fold deterrent: first there’s all the chicken poo covering it, but before you get to that you would have to brave Perdy, who is likely to give you a severe pecking, just in case you are edible. After that use it goes into the compost bin. Alternatively, at the right time of year, shredded paper gets put into the bottom of the bean trench along with uncomposted kitchen waste… thus allowing in situ composting to generate heat and give the beans a good start. In addition, this approach provides nutrients and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil… all that carbon in the paper is too good to waste.

So, I’m wondering… do you have ways of turning your confidential waste into a resource and preventing identity theft at the same time?

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