DIY & GARDENING WITH A SMALL FOOTPRINT

We live in an old house with a garden, both needing regular maintenance and constant care. We enjoy making home improvements and gardening, but we found it surprisingly difficult to switch to doing it plastic-free. Plastic has a necessary place in many permanent fixtures in the house such as electric cabling, to give but one vital example, but the proliferation of polymers, non-recyclable plastic and unnecessary packaging associated with products for the home and garden is truly staggering. Everything from paints and varnishes to fertilisers and weed control is subject to highly industrial production methods and much packaging. Regardless of whether you garden organically and take pains to choose natural DIY products, single-use plastic prevails in the shape of bottles, buckets, pots, trays, tubes, bags, handles, liners and labels, most of which are probably heading to landfill or incineration.

The big DIY chain stores and garden centres tap into our innate desire to make our homes and gardens beautiful and productive, whilst at the same time maximizing on our hapless fixation with convenience shopping. For years, I’d bundle the kids into the car to buy plants and garden accessories whenever the fancy took me (usually at the point of Spring having arrived) without much planning or thought about the environmental impact of the items I would buy. I might have fooled myself into thinking that I was making good choices by selecting the more natural sounding ‘seaweed fertiliser’ over ‘miracle grow’, but I didn’t think about the burden of industrial production and the problematic disposal of the packaging of either of those two products. And it was so easy to buy cheap things when I wanted them, rather than save up, plan ahead and wait. Which seemed fine until it dawned on me that plastic packaging and transport of cheap, mass produced products from far away countries is a problem and that I was supporting it.

I am thinking that not so long ago, people swapped seeds with each other, took plant cuttings, lent each other tools, grew their own fertiliser, controlled weeds by hoeing and made their own soil by composting. Not so long ago, building materials were sourced locally, carefully preserved, repaired and reused, tools were chosen for quality and durability and packaging was not really a thing. In short, there was little waste and probably not much of a carbon footprint. All of this is still available to us now if we can care enough to say no to convenience and yes to things that take time and effort. The reward is huge!

One of us is a capable DIYer and the other an enthusiastic gardener and so we keenly set out to find less wasteful ways to tackle home and garden. We had to research, learn, plan ahead and apply a little more ingenuity. We had to be willing to forgo some things and spend more money on others. This year we bought brass fittings for the water hose instead of the cheap plastic fittings which break so easily. We bought well-made, used tools at jumble sales. We discovered a local seed swapping scheme. We exchanged plants grown from seed with friends and neighbours. We built a small porch from recycled materials and refurbished the kitchen with cupboards made by a local artisan. It took time and effort but we accomplished it with very little waste and on budget. We live in an area that teems with light industry – when we need a sheet of metal, a pane of glass or planks of wood, we can go downtown and buy directly from the supplier. The same goes for unpackaged loose top soil, sand, gravel, paving stones and many other items. Once we stayed away from the big chain stores we were free to discover much better ways to do the same things. Occasionally the new ways were irritating (such as losing all cabbage plants to insects and all soft fruit to birds one year) but most of the time they are incredibly satisfying.

Depending on where you live, your challenges and needs may be different from ours. We don’t all need the same solutions, but everyone benefits from cutting down plastic waste and avoiding chemicals that burden our environment. We found that it was a matter of taking time over finding the alternatives which often stared us right in the face. Oh how I wished we had started this journey years ago!

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