Category Archives: General

WHAT’S IN YOUR BIN?

The Environmental Impact of Consumerism

Since deciding to have a serious look at living without plastic some 18 months ago, we have had to radically change the way we go about shopping. With very few exceptions, we do not buy any single-use plastic. Gone are the days of filling a shopping trolley with whatever we fancy and can afford, or shopping online for convenience. In the beginning I was fascinated and excited by the task of finding alternatives to plastic and I spent a considerable amount of time seeking out unpackaged food and household items made from newly invented and natural materials. I also rediscovered second hand shops and flea markets. But as time went on my enthusiasm waned with the realisation that the issues about waste and pollution are more complicated and that consumption, of whatever kind, always has an environmental impact.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘consumer’ but when we participate in the economy of the free market, that’s what we are. Goods and services are made available at shops or at the click of a button, 24/7, all year round. Companies are driven by shareholder return and individuals are driven by the thrill of buying – it’s a perfect match. We don’t just buy what we truly need. We get hooked on wanting things that are new and exciting: convenient food, the latest health products, the next phone upgrade, and we love a bargain such as designer clothes for less, two for the price of one…

So, what is in my bins? Raw and cooked food scraps are in their respective composting bins. Paper, cardboard, glass, batteries, light bulbs, foil and tin are in the recycling boxes. There’s a bag of odds and ends for the charity shops. Items that cannot be reused or recycled are in the trash which is now a fraction of what it used to be. Curiously, now that the non-recyclable waste has shrunk to an amount so small that it doesn’t even warrant a bag, I feel even more responsible for it. I don’t feel good about the recycling box either. I look at the amount of cardboard and glass bottles and it suddenly seems an excessive way to package things that only give a moment of pleasure but demand precious resources, as well as man and machine power.

I was interviewed for a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth on recycling, called ‘Where does our waste go?’ I joined the team on a tour of a large, modern sorting facility (MRF) in Birmingham that sorts 80,000 tons per year of domestic recycling collected by different Councils. The facility produces bales of different materials to sell on but there still were heaps of unsorted rubbish at the end of the process due to mixed materials and contaminated materials, which is typically shipped abroad. For example, the facility cannot process Tetrapak cartons which are made of paper, plastic and aluminium. Some of the already sorted piles were so full of small pieces of plastic that the material being sorted was unrecognisable. All I could see in the glass pile was coloured bits of hard plastic such as bottle caps and broken biros, clothes hangers, bits of toys and so on. The radio programme was good but narrowly focussed on what is being collected for recycling in the UK without reference to the much larger proportion of waste that is not recycled. In terms of plastic, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016).

We are not coping with the tsunami of waste being created despite recycling efforts and plastic waste is our biggest problem right now. Only last month new reports were published about microplastic particles in drinking water and table salt. Plastic particles are already all around us in rivers, soil, remote arctic ice, deep-sea beds, in the food chain and even in our own bodies. Recycling is often cited as the solution, conveniently making the problem of plastic pollution the responsibility of the ‘consumer’ and tax payer rather than looking at cutting plastic production by commercial industries. In the UK, recycling collection figures are declining, making recycling even less effective than it already is.

If we don’t want to be reduced to simply being consumers, we need to stop behaving as such. We need to learn about the environmental impact of the things we buy not only in terms of waste but also in terms of resources used, production methods and transportation. Cotton and polyester clothing, for example, have a devastating impact on the environment in terms of chemicals and water used during production. Compostable plant-based plastic, hailed as the eco alternative to petroleum-based plastic, competes for arable land and is even causing deforestation to satisfy demand.

Lately I have found myself contemplating items before buying them, scrutinizing them carefully, asking myself why I want them in the first place? I wonder where the item was made, what materials were used, how it was transported, how the workers were paid and how the raw material was mined? I often return empty handed from a shopping trip for clothes, shoes and other everyday items. I didn’t need them after all! What has replaced the thrill of buying is the desire to cherish and look after things I already have. I want to have a less cluttered life and surround myself with objects that are unique, beautiful, useful and leave a small footprint.

What’s in my bins has made me think about what I most value and what I really need and enjoy. Scrutinize the contents of your bins and let them give you some feedback. The process might lead you to a new and positive relationship with the things you value most in your life.

More information:

Costing the Earth: Where does our waste go?
BBC Radio Four, October 2017 – featuring yours truly for a few seconds at 16:30

Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made
Roland Geyer, University of California, Santa Barbara, July 2017

Sea salt around the world is contaminated by plastic, studies show
The Guardian, September 2017

Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals
The Guardian, September 2017

THE PLASTIC BAG DILEMMA

The introduction of the 5p charge for plastic shopping bags in 2015 caused a fantastic 84% drop in bags being handed out in UK supermarkets. A much welcomed and decisive step in the right direction. At the same time we have also seen the rise of biodegradable and compostable bags and packaging. But as with many new laws and inventions, there are often unforeseen consequences. Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, and the plastic bag ban across some territories in Australia more recently, resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags for kitchen bins. Biodegradable bags are made of a blend of plastic and corn or potato starch and will decompose in water and in CO2 but still cause plastic pollution in the long run. Bioplastic crops needed for this type of bag, and for compostable packaging in general, compete for land with biofuels and food crops, causing big problems such as loss of rainforests in favour of agricultural land use. The dilemma continues when you consider the environmental impact of paper bags and cotton bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times and a cotton bag 173 times to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag.

The simple solution is to avoid single use bags altogether and to have our own supply of cotton bags always at the ready. In addition to the usual cotton and hemp carrier bags, we can also have small fabric bags for bagging up fruit, veg, bread and other loose items in the shops. I made a variety of small bags one afternoon from fabric I had saved over time, including my sons’ first cot bedlinen. If you don’t sew, you can buy organic cotton drawstring bags from  Etsy or a dozen other online shops. As for kitchen bin bags – since I decided to live without plastic bags altogether we had to be more rigorous about separating compost, cooked food and recyclables so that the kitchen bin can be emptied straight into the large bin outside without the use of a bag. My little shopping bags are precious to me now and I wouldn’t dream of throwing them away or using them as a bin bag. It’s just a small mind shift from ‘throw-away’ to ‘keepsake’ that puts the solution to the big problems into our own hands.

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CAUSING RIPPLES IN PLASTIC-FREE JULY

In July, I was invited to give two workshops on living without plastic at the Seed Festival at Hawkwood College, near Stroud. This beautiful, small eco-festival aims to inspire a more intimate and personal connection with the world and our place within it. It featured ‘green’ speakers, movers & shakers, musicians, poets and artists. The invitation coincided nicely with the global plastic-free-July campaign.

In order to gain some practice for the Seed Festival workshops I hooked up with Transition Stroud to organise an evening workshop for anyone interested locally. Expecting a small group, I prepared a slideshow and planned to make toothpaste and deodorant together with whoever came along. To my complete amazement, over 50 people showed up and squeezed into the small venue. We had a fantastic, lively evening with people of all ages asking great questions and scrutinising the various plastic-free household items I had brought with me. The evening was followed by a public meeting in Stroud which resulted in a new action group being formed, to tackle reducing single-use plastic in our area. Four of the participants joined the plastic-free July campaign and have joined the new Stroud action group as core members. At the Seed Festival, I was once again bowled over by interest the workshops generated where, in total, some 80 people or so participated. For one of the workshops we migrated outside, as the allocated room was too small.

I am encouraged by the seemingly high number of people who want to change our reliance on plastic packaging and who want to be proactive. The number of people immediately taking some form of action when we talk about it makes me think that this ‘movement’ is ready to gain momentum and spread more widely. The thought of causing ripples far beyond our community makes me excited about how new habits can take off and become contagious. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend a plastic-free July.

Thank you to my friends Katie from Hawkwood College and Erik from Transition Stroud and also to my husband and sons for their support and participation.

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STYLISH ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC STRAWS

It’s a must-do but is so easy to forget: always refuse plastic drink straws. If you’re unaware of the environmental impact caused by the trillions of single-use plastic drink straws that are discarded after one use and if you have missed the fantastic campaigns such as One Less Straw and others, then please have a look at the links below. A fun and stylish alternative are straws made from metal, bamboo, paper, glass or even silicone. They are easy to take with you when out and about with friends or on holiday. You can have a selection at home to show off your non-plastic credentials. The ones I bought (from local Stroud Valleys Project shop) are stainless steel and come with a dinky little brush for cleaning. I see that they are also available on Amazon from about £5 for 4 straws. Have a great summer everyone!

More Info:

  • Plastic Pollution Coalition – 500 million plastic straws per day are discarded in the US alone
  • One Less Straw – a campaign started in 2009 by a couple of kids. It’s been going round the world and is a sizable non-profit organisation now. On their website are resources and information. If you are brave enough to watch it, have a look at the video about a giant sea turtle having an entire plastic straw removed from its body through the nostril by some brave rescuers. You will never use a plastic straw ever again!
  • Dive Planit – on why plastic straws seriously suck
  • Be Straw Free campaign
  • Netivist campaign

ONE YEAR – ONE BAG OF PLASTIC

We have just reached our first anniversary of creating a plastic-free household. During the past year we concentrated mainly on unpackaged food, cleaning materials, toiletries and plastic-free clothing. We have collected every scrap of plastic packaging that we have accidentally, or otherwise, brought into the house. This has amounted to roughly one large bagful of plastic packaging from medical supplies, items that we bought which had hidden plastic packaging inside, presents that were given to us, and also from items that seemed unavoidable. Considering that UK households produce an average of 56kg of plastic packaging waste a year, our one bag weighing no more than a couple of pounds represents a great achievement.

In reality, our single-use plastic footprint is much larger than the household figures measured by Defra and in our case, it is bigger than the single bagful collected over the course of a year. Much of our plastic waste is created outside the home, for example in the workplace, at school, in restaurants, at the petrol station, at the hairdressers, at the gym, and by pursuing hobbies and other pastimes that take us outside the home. In the supply chain of the goods I conscientiously buy ‘unpackaged’, there are unknown quantities of plastic packaging. We are not the only ones in the dark: at a recent talk given by Tesco on food waste, which I attended in Oxford, I learned that all of the large supermarket retailers “currently don’t understand or know enough” about the plastic packaging waste in their supply chains. This means that the plastic packaging that each of us is ultimately responsible for is not just in our bins at home.

Over this past year I have read report after report, attended events, talked to many people and the story is the same everywhere. Most people think there is too much plastic in their lives and that we should recycle more and develop new materials to replace plastic. However, few talk about the one solution that is surely staring us in the face. The one solution that could prevent further environmental crises and help restore local communities is ethical consumption. Ethical consumption means that you choose only what you need, what has been paid for fairly, what has been made to last, and what has been produced sustainably without hurting people, animals or the earth. I might not be a shining example of the perfect ethical consumer yet, but I am immensely interested in becoming one. It seems to be one of the few things in life that is actually within my power!

Read More:

  • Waste and Resource Statistics_2016 by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Plastics_Market_Situation_Report_2016  by UK based WRAP, the world leaders in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015 in England alone, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
  • How did I calculate 56kg of plastic packaging per UK household? I used the most up-to-date figures provided in the two reports above which are for 2014 (new data is collected every two years, so the data for 2016 should be available soon). I applied this to the total number of households in the UK in 2014 as provided by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Article on Ethical Consumerism by Tania Lewis first publishd in 2012

TWO EXCELLENT NEW SHORT DOCUMENTARIES

‘A Plastic Tide’, Sky News Ocean Rescue, January 2017

If you are going to watch a documentary this weekend, make it this one!  Sky News Ocean Rescue have produced an excellent 45 minute special report, first aired on TV in January 2017, with the latest research from the UK and abroad. Intelligent, accessible and to the point – be prepared to feel crushed, moved and called to action all at the same time. It also makes you realise that there are a lot of amazing and inspiring people out there. If you have kids, do watch it together. Read more about Sky News Ocean Rescue here.


‘The Smog of the Sea’ by Jack Johnson

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a 1-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea in search of the infamous “garbage patches” in the ocean’s gyres. it is beautifully shot and accompanied by Jack Johnson’s lovely music. Marine scientist Marcus Eriksen invited onboard an unusual crew to help him study the sea: renowned surfers Keith & Dan Malloy, musician Jack Johnson, spearfisher woman Kimi Werner, and bodysurfer Mark Cunningham become citizen scientists on a mission to assess the fate of plastics in the world’s oceans. A mesmerising and very interesting 30 minute documentary.


BEACH COMBING FOR NURDLES

We recently went on a little field trip to two of the most beautiful beaches in Devon to look for nurdles. Prompted by the recent news of record levels of plastic nurdles being washed up on UK beaches (127,500  were found on a 100m stretch of beach in Cornwall alone) we wanted to see for ourselves. Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets used as raw material for almost every plastic product on earth. An estimated 113 billion kilograms of nurdles are produced every year. The extensive spillage of these pellets during transport on ships, trains and trucks has become a massive environmental problem. Campaigners estimate that up to 53 billion pellets escape into the UK’s environment each year.

The beaches we chose for our field trip are remote and pristine, with white sand and a beautiful surf rolling in from the English Channel. My husband and his sister played here as children. Our own children grew up exploring the rock pools and fishing just off the coast. There is an estuary dotted with dinghies and there are wetlands beyond the beach – a haven for people and wildlife. At first glance, the beach looked reassuringly normal with happy families and surfers enjoying themselves as always. Yes, there was the odd bit of big plastic: a battered laundry basket, a broken packing pallet, a plastic bottle. National Trust beach volunteer Jeff was out picking litter as part of his daily routine. Still, nothing too bad, we thought.

It wasn’t until we got down on our knees and close up to the swathes of seaweed left behind by the tide that we started noticing hundreds of bits of small plastic: bottle tops, twine, netting, Styrofoam, balls of bubble warp, packaging and brightly coloured solid bits of plastic of all sizes. Our bags were filled after just 20 minutes of casual picking. Really disheartening. We found the nurdles on the second beach. One or two at first and then 70 or more within a 10 metre stretch of sand. We stopped looking after a few minutes because it was evident just how close to home this global problem is… I’ll let the pictures below do the talking.

I know of no other solution then to stop buying plastic and to support those who lobby governments and work with industry to reform and bring in alternatives as quickly as possible.

MORE INFORMATION:

Plastic lids and debris found within minutes of beach combing

Small selection of plastic found within minutes on Bantham beach and South Milton beach

Tiny plastic nurdles on Bantham beach

Bantham beach nurdles up close

Everyday plastic items washed up on the beach

National Trust volunteer Jeff picking litter on South Milton beach

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES

With some creative thinking and a bit of planning we managed our first ever plastic-free Christmas. It was a great experience and strengthened my resolve to keep going! The emphasis was on simplicity as an antidote to the usual frenzy leading up to the holidays. It was wonderful to have a Christmas without piles of plastic boxes, trays, shrinkwraps, vacuum packs, bubble wrap, styrofoam, tamper seals, bottles, bags, labels, clingfilm… the list goes on.

The food
Buying mainly from a local food cooperative, local shops and our excellent farmers market ensured that all of the food came unpackaged or plastic-free. We had a traditional lunch of roast turkey, veggies, roast potatoes, sausages wrapped in bacon and Christmas pudding. Beer came from a local micro-brewery, eggs from our neighbour Olga, bread from the bakers, milk and orange juice in glass bottles from Mike the milkman, and so on. It’s all about making connections with shop owners, market stall holders and local producers and not being afraid to ask for what you want. For example, Juliet from Monmouthshire Turkeys was more than happy to supply the organic, free-range bird in a cardboard box with giblets wrapped in foil.

We couldn’t have managed it if we had to rely on supermarket shopping or ordering online. The small amount of supermarket shopping that we did do landed us with a few little plastic surprises such as plastic labels on jars of mayonnaise and plastic stickers on fruit. It all sounds very time-consuming but consider that we already buy our food this way and know where to go. The thought that most of the food, including the turkey came from the surrounding countryside made it seem especially delicious.

The presents
We decided to buy second-hand presents from charity shops for each other this year. I like that the money we spent goes to charitable causes and that anything we bought is given another lease of life. We found interesting books, games, films, music CDs, smart button shirts, a framed black & white photograph and useful kitchen utensils. We decided that the hard plastic covers on DVD & CDs were ok as they are ‘multi-use’  and because we would eventually return them to a charity shop for someone else to enjoy. We went to the sweet shop for stocking filler treats. Sweets are dispensed from large glass jars and weighed in to paper bags. Chocolate and Turkish Delight are sold by weight too. Normally we also give each other magazine subscriptions at Christmas. But this year we let some of the subscriptions lapse because they come in plastic wrappers (New Scientist and The Economist). We renewed the subscriptions that come in compostable wrappers such as Resurgeance and Positive News!

Christmas crackers, wrapping paper and more…
I didn’t get any Christmas crackers this year (the type you pull apart with a bang and out pop a little plastic toy, a joke and a paper crown to be worn throughout the traditional British Christmas lunch). Instead our son Toby made some posh paper crowns for us with hilarious name badges. We chose not to wrap presents. A lot of wrapping paper contains plastic and glitter or is packaged in plastic film. You can’t recycle it so it’s just better to do without it or make your own. Whenever I can, I buy box sets of greetings cards from galleries and art shops to avoid individually plastic-wrapped gift cards and I applied the same principle to Christmas cards. Lastly, tea lights and batteries gave us a bit of a headache until we discovered both being sold in cardboard boxes at the hardware store.

Our next ‘living without plastic’ challenge: my husband’s 50th birthday party in February… for 80 people!

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Happy New Year to you! Do you want to make a change and start using less plastic in your life? Here are some great ideas with real impact to get you started:

  1. Switch to buying unpackaged fruit and vegetables – find your local farm shop
  2. Switch to paper or reusable fabric produce bags at the shops
  3. Switch to stainless steel tins or glass jars for food storage
  4. Switch to a stainless steel water bottle and take it with you wherever you go
  5. Switch to soap and shampoo bars to avoid plastic bottles
  6. Switch to bamboo toothbrushes and try out a simple toothpaste recipe
  7. Switch to cosmetics and bathroom products without microbeads
  8. Switch to washing powder in cardboard boxes
  9. Switch to milk in glass bottles delivered to your door
  10. Switch from tea bags to tea leaves – most tea bags contain plastic
  11. For a bonus point watch the new film ‘A Plastic Ocean’ available on iTunes and share it with your families and friends

See my blog posts for resources, research, how-to-make-things, where to shop and more. I’m looking forward to sharing more this year as I get better at living without plastic.

ZERO PLASTIC TOILET PAPER & KITCHEN TOWEL

The bog blog! If you already buy recycled toilet paper and simply want to avoid plastic packaging, there are easy alternatives. If you also want to avoid the plastic contained in recycled paper, it becomes a little more difficult. It all depends on your level of commitment to the cause and on weighing up the pros and cons:

1) Recycled paper with compostable packaging

Pros: Suma’s Ecoleaf toilet paper & kitchen towel products are made in the UK with 100% recycled paper from a blend of consumer waste and offcuts from manufacturers’ waste. The100% compostable wrap is sustainable, renewable, non-polluting, non-toxic and unbleached. So far so good.

Cons: Paper collected for recycling includes many items such as thermal receipts and magazines that contain a nasty type of plastic called BPA. There is much written about this on US websites. If you want to avoid contact with BPA and are worried about flushing plastic chemicals down the loo and ultimately into the oceans, don’t buy recycled paper products.

2) Plant- based paper in compostable packaging

Pros: Greencane paper products are made from 70% recycled sugarcane and bamboo fibre and 30% certified wood pulp. Packaging is 100% compostable including the see-through cellophane. The whole lot is sustainably sourced and is free of inks, fragrances and plastic. I like this product very much (see picture).

Cons: Greencane paper was developed by a couple from New Zealand, is produced in China and is therefore shipped a long way. It’s probably more expensive compared to the other options.

3) Homemade toilet cloths

Pros: You may think I’m kidding but just search for fabric toilet cloth on the internet and you will find that a lot of families do this. Made from old fabric, disposed of in separate bins and then carefully laundered – no packaging, no carbon footprint.

Cons: I could probably come up with something, but fabric toilet cloth brigade I salute you! Nevertheless, I’m going to stick with Greencane paper for now.

Where to buy:

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