I recently attended a conference on the environmental impact of microplastics. The event was organised by the NFWI and came a day after they published their report, In A Spin: how our laundry is contributing to plastic pollution. The report was presented at a roundtable but I’ll get to that later on.
So, microplastics… a microplastic is any piece of plastic that is 5mm or smaller. We’re all familiar with the intact bottles and lighters etc that are floating around in the sea, and harming wildlife, but not many people have heard of microplastics let alone the harm they can cause.
Being less than 5mm in size means it’s almost impossible for them to be spotted and picked out, however there are some mechanisms in place to try and catch as many as possible. Enter the oh so glamourous world of sewage treatment… EVERYTHING we flush goes through at least one (for very remote places) level of filtration and treatment. Most of us live in towns or cities and we can typically expect our flushes to go through about 3 stages of treatment. Sometimes, and increasingly often, fatbergs are being discovered. The sewage system will develop a blockage and when a team goes down to investigate they find huge solid masses of… mostly wipes actually. Tampons, nappies and cooking fat typically make up around 10-20% of the bergs and the rest are wipes!
The sewage not affected by fatbergs goes through the treatment works and at the end of the process there is a lot of very fertile sludge left over, which is then passed on to farmers to spread around their crops. At the moment there are microplastics that are too small to be picked up by the filtration systems and are making their way into the vegetables we eat.
As far as food goes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – well done me for not making a lettuce based pun there! Plastic (of all sizes) is turning up in the stomachs of the animals we go on to eat… from fish to birds and mammals, they’re all ingesting plastic from various sources. That plastic can have a hormone disrupting effect on the animals.
It’s not just our food that is being affected, in fact our drinks often contain microplastics too. I can’t go into too much detail here as the study hasn’t been officially published yet but so far researchers have found plastic particles in bottled drinks – they even found types of plastic inside the drinks which weren’t even used in the manufacture of the bottles the drinks came in. I’ll revisit this in more detail once the study is published.
So, before you swear to become vegan and only ever drink filtered water there is one more place where microplastics are entering our bodies – in the very air we breathe! We really cannot avoid it. I should point out that it is believed to only be harmful to us in extremely high concentrations, which experts think is highly unlikely to ever be reached by most people.
The NFWI report focuses on the microplastic fibres that are shed from our clothes in the washing machine. These days it’s rare for anyone to own any item of clothing without some form of plastic in it. We might have the odd 100% cotton t-shirt but it’s likely that the rest of the wardrobe is made up of synthetic fibres.
The round table that the NFWI presented their report at was attended by representatives from a variety of industries to try and tackle the issue from every angle – textile designers are now trying to create a synthetic fabric that sheds fewer fibres during each wash (ideally they’ll be able to get the number down to zero). Washing machine manufacturers will be looking at improving their filters etc to try and catch more plastic fibres, preventing them from entering the waterways. The government are going to think up appropriate legislation and the NFWI are going to raise awareness of the issue so that individuals can play their part too. There were others present, but you get the idea… it’s a multi-pronged attack on the microplastics coming from our clothes.
So while the experts work away at the problem what can we, as individuals, do to reduce the amount if plastic we add to the oceans in the meantime? Well there are a few things we can do right away:
Wash at lower temperatures – this will help fewer fibres from being shed.
Switch to a liquid detergent rather than powder – powder agitates the fabrics a lot more than liquid detergent and so more fibres are released. There is a zero waste argument for Soap Nuts here, but I haven’t given them a proper run yet so stay tuned for an in-depth review.
Only wash clothes when dirty – climbing into some casual clothes for a couple of hours after work means they’re probably still good to be worn again without having to go in the wash.
Only run the washing machine when you have a full load and line dry instead of using a tumble drier if possible.
Look into an in-wash filter like a Cora Ball. The Cora Ball currently only removes about half the fibres that are released but that appears to be the best available at the moment. At the conference someone from the textile industry announced that the Guppy Friend bags don’t work. Personally, I haven’t tried either (yet).
Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought there. I know it’s tempting to start buying only natural fibres after finding out about all these microplastics coming from our clothes, however there is also an environmental impact there too. It’s a problem that we’re not going to be able to solve overnight, so in the meantime it’s best to alter our laundry habits as per the bullet points above.
Finally, I’m thrilled to announce there will be some exciting changes coming up – I’ll be moving the blog over to a new domain and I’ll also be adding an online shop where you’ll be able to purchase some handmade zero waste essentials.
I love Autumn! I love the colours. I love feeling the last breath of summer’s warmth being gently ushered along by gusts of wind hinting at winter’s icy chill.
I also love celebrating the harvest. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not one for pottering in the garden and I struggle to keep plants alive for a full year, but I do enjoy celebrating at harvest time.
As a child we would be asked to take a tin of soup or something into school for the harvest festival. All the tins were then collected together, nicely displayed during an assembly, and then distributed to people in the community who were most in need – the food banks of the 90’s! As a kid I didn’t know or care about the harvest festival. I didn’t even know it was anything to do with farming, to me it was just an annual event where I had to raid the cupboard for a tin of beans. Eventually I questioned what people did before tins were invented and that’s when I discovered the harvest festival was all about celebrating all that nature has given us.
Once upon a time men would gather in the crops and the women would preserve those crops in order to sustain the family through the forthcoming Winter. The Harvest Festival celebrates this ritual – all the hard work of toiling in both the fields and the kitchen comes to a close with everyone enjoying a lovely ploughmans meal, a sheaf loaf and a drink or 2 to rejoice and give thanks for successful harvest.
In that same tradition, this time last year I was gathering up the last fruits of the year and preserving them ready for Winter. I had such an overwhelming sense of being at one with nature – making the most of Summer’s abundance to sustain us through the next season.
This year was a very different story though. The unusual heat that we experienced here in Britain this spring/summer meant that all the fruit I normally gather up had fully ripened by early July which meant no August jam making for me. In fact I didn’t get to preserve anything this year for Winter. Luckily, in this day and age we don’t need to spend Autumn preparing for Winter. Eating seasonally can be reduced to nothing more than another hipster trend that allows gourmet restaurants to charge way over the odds, and the closest most people get to pulling a root vegetable from the ground is washing the dirt off a carrot they bought at the supermarket. And that’s the point – supermarkets allow us to buy the fruits of someone else’s labour. We never have to worry about not having enough food for winter because we can just go out and buy the same ingredients week in and week out any time of the year. It doesn’t matter what season it is, food is grown all over the world and shipped over so we can enjoy things like asparagus in January and strawberries in February if we want to.
I wasn’t able to gather up and preserve anything this year and I’m sorry to say but a lot of farmers took a much bigger hit than that this year as well. Many crops failed entirely and almost all farmers suffered heavy losses. This year more than ever we’re going to be thankful that the supermarkets are able to import food from overseas.
Therein is the dilemma. Supermarkets squeeze producers as much as possible to bring us cheap food year-round, shipping food all over the world thus contributing massively to climate change. However, as a result of climate change we’re having to rely on those same supermarkets (rather than local farm shops for example) to see us through winter at an affordable price.
I’m not trying to suggest supermarkets are the sole cause of climate change here. The modern lifestyle is largely to blame and our reliance on cheap produce from overseas rather than growing our own is just one contributing factor. Did you know that the old council houses (built before the 1980’s) used to be quite small but have relatively large gardens becsuse they expected the tenents to be self-sufficient?! The gardens were divided into 3 sections where crops could be grown, livestock (such as a pig) could be kept and I forget what the 3rd section was intended for now but it doesn’t really matter because of course almost no one did plant any fruit and veg in their gardens (or keep any livestock), instead they mostly became large areas for the kids to play in which is why later builds tended to have MUCH smaller gardens, if at all.
I’m not expecting anyone to suddenly rush out with a spade to start planting some potatoes here, instead I would urge everyone to try and shop local where possible. By all means get digging if that’s your thing though. Is eating seasonally really so bad if it means the food we’re about to tuck into has a lower carbon footprint? Buying direct from a local farm shop or green grocers means you’re unlikely to encounter fruit and veg encased in plastic packaging and you’ll be able to pick from the whole crop, not just the ones that conform to a certain shape or size. One of the bug supermarkets here is currently running an advert boasting about buying the whole crop by creating the “wonky” range – it’s good that they’re not just leaving the ones that don’t make the grade to go to waste, but they’ve wrapped them all in plastic and labelled it as “wonky”. How about buying the whole crop the farmer and selling the whole lot loose?! Let’s stop the vegetation-based apartheid, ditch the plastic, and just let consumers pick their own quantity!
Supermarkets have also recently been advertising their willingness to let you bring your own container into the store… like I said we should be doing in a previous post. Don’t wait for a shop to give you permission to use your own container instead of them giving you a disposable one – just take one with you and ask if they’re okay with it. I’ve been taking my own containers everywhere for a couple of years now and have never encountered anyone unwilling to fill mine instead of their own.
The one harvest ritual I did manage to fulfil this year was the sheaf loaf. I fully intended to take a photo but, in this house we love digging in to bread fresh from the oven and so, on this occasion we had already devoured half the loaf before I thought about taking a pic. I normally bake bread every few days so you think we’d be over the fresh from the oven novelty by now, but no!
One day my little one is going to have a great time getting his hands dirty kneading and shaping the dough with me, and I just can’t wait to be able to share the full harvest tradition with him – the preserving fresh fruit and vegetables ready for winter one, not the taking a tin of soup to school one.
Yep, this month we’re talking nappies! Well you couldn’t expect me to let Real Nappy Week go by without comment now could you?! Obviously I’m all for real nappies, also known as cloth nappies, but I’ve found that a lot of people are very critical of my decision, telling me I should just stick with disposables – no, those people have never read this blog. What I’ve noticed is that people under the age of about 50 seem to be largely supportive (to varying degrees) and will often already know someone who uses cloth nappies and raves about them. People over that age seem to be the ones trying to persuade me to use disposables because they’re still remembering the old terry squares that you would have to fold and carefully pin in place – you can still get those but most cloth nappies today are shaped just like disposables and have velcro tabs at the top so there’s no need for the dreaded safety pin.
I can see how disposables became popular in the first place: from having to fold up a piece of cloth and gently pin it in place while contending with a very wriggly baby can’t have been much fun. Then there’s the cleaning side… before disposable nappies came onto the market it was quite rare for people to have their own washing machine in the home. Instead they were likely to have to go to a laundrette everyday with a bag full of nappies and loose change (not very practical) or, more likely, they would have to wash all the nappies by hand. Given those circumstances I think even I might have opted for disposables back then too. Thankfully, things aren’t like that any more – most people do have a washing machine at home and cloth nappies are just as easy to put on as a disposable now.
There are loads of different terms that get thrown around when it comes to cloth nappies. I have purchased 2 types – some all-in-ones (AIOs) and some fitted nappies, so I’ll mostly be talking about these types. The others you can get include pocket, prefold and all-in-two. If you want to give real nappies a go then it’s worth doing a little research as to which type would be most suitable for you – just because your best friend raves about prefolds doesn’t mean they’re going to be the best fit for your lifestyle. A good place to start is your local nappy library (you should be able to find details through your local council’s website). The nappy library will explain all the different options to you and allow you to try each type out – you can then continue using the library or you can purchase your own set. You can also try out a local laundry service where they’ll take away the dirty nappies and leave you with a fresh set. Obviously I can’t try out any kind of nappy just yet so I had to make an educated guess as to what would be best for our family. Actually, another point to note on your local council’s website is what kind of incentive they offer for using real nappies. Here in Central Bedfordshire we’re able to apply for £25 cashback upon spending £50 or more. I know residents of some London boroughs though can apply for vouchers to spend on real nappies, so it’s worth seeing what is on offer before spending any money.
Ahhh money… so a lot of people are put off cloth nappies because of the up-front cost. I’m not going to lie, it is expensive, especially as my local council will only offer up to £25 towards the cost. Just to give you an idea, I bought a set of 40 nappies plus 12 wraps (from the Cloth Nappy Shop) for £225. I also got a few AIO nappies while they were on introductory offer at the supermarket for £10, although the price has now gone up to £16 each. The set of 40 that I got (20 in size 1 and 20 in size 2) will last from birth to potty and in theory I shouldn’t need any more than that. I did however get the AIOs as well because the size can be adjusted and it meant I’d have a few back-ups in case of an especially upset tummy.
I’ve probably confused a few of you there. So the 40 nappies I got from Cloth Nappy Shop are fitted nappies. They are shaped just like disposables but are made from bamboo fibres (you can also get cotton and microfibre ones as well, however bamboo is SUPER absorbent) and have velcro tabs at the top, like the sticky tabs you get on disposables. The nappy itself is highly absorbent (whatever fibre type you choose) but not waterproof, therefore an additional waterproof layer (a wrap) is required on top of the nappy. Most of the time the urine doesn’t soak all the way through to the wrap so the same wrap can be reused when a nappy is changed, unless of course there was a bit of a ‘leaky’ episode – although I’m told that’s quite rare for cloth nappies. Fitted nappies (and their wraps) tend to come in 2 or 3 sizes, although most children are fully toilet trained whilst in size 2, so its unlikely most parents would ever need to purchase size 3, unless they have a large toddler or it is taking little one a bit longer to get the hang of things. The AIO nappies tend to be covered in press studs and may have press stud fixings on the tabs or they may also have velcro. The press studs going down the front are so the size of the nappy can be adjusted to fit from birth up to potty without having to purchase a different set of nappies in the next size up. These nappies are absorbent and have an outer waterproof layer attached. AIOs may not last as long as the fitted nappies as the waterproof layer can start to delaminate over time. The fitted wraps may also delaminate but they don’t require washing as often as an AIO and therefore will probably last a bit longer.
Anyway, back to the financial side of things. So yes, there is a larger up-front cost, but in the long-term real nappies work out to be substantially cheaper. If purchasing cloth nappies for a first child, you’ll have forked out say £300, but then you’ll already have your nappy stash to hand ready for any subsequent children. You may even be able to recoup some of the cost by then selling them on to other parents-to-be once you decide to not have any more children, providing they’re in a decent enough condition, otherwise you can use them as cleaning rags around the house. Disposables on the other hand will only cost you a few £s at a time but from birth to potty you will likely get through around £900 worth of nappies… per child!
And what happens to those nappies once they’re thrown away? They sit in landfill of course. Estimates of how long it takes for a disposable nappy to decompose vary from 400 to 500 years. There are some disposable nappies that claim to be eco-friendly though. Beaming Baby nappies spring to mind here. Their nappies are 50% more bio-degradable than their nearest competitor but that still only makes them 75% bio-degradable. That means that 75% of the nappy will decompose within 5 years whereas the remaining 25% will still be sitting in landfill for up to 500 years. Just to give you a little more perspective, the average baby will get through around 5000 nappies before they’re potty trained.
Another thing that puts some people off using real nappies is having to deal with the poo. Whilst a baby is breastfed the poo laden nappies can go in the wash as normal. Once they start on solids you need to dispose of the poo down the toilet – just like you’re supposed to do with disposables! However, I’m not sure I know anyone who uses disposables that actually does bother to dispose of the poo in the toilet before throwing the nappy away, and I guess that’s why they’re considered so convenient these days. But councils and other authorities will encourage you to dispose of all human waste (that includes baby poo) via the sewage system. Please NEVER flush the nappy down the toilet though!! I used to work at a company that builds new homes and we would often get complaints that the sewers were backing up into people’s homes. We’d send the sewage guys in to investigate and every time (whilst I was working there at least) the blockage was being caused by people flushing either nappies or, more commonly, wipes down the toilet. Yep, even the wipes that are advertised as being flushable (you know the ones from that advert where they’re asking kids and adults how clean they feel?!) still take several years to break down, and so they snag on a nail or something inside the pipe, then more and more wipes get caught and before you know it the poor family at the end of the drain run are getting raw sewage backing up into their house.
While we’re on the subject, let’s quickly discuss baby wipes. They may be gentle on baby’s skin but they’re certainly not gentle on the environment. The zero-waste option is to use fleece wipes that you simply wet, use and then toss in the wash with the nappy. The changing bag I have even came with a wipes dispenser which I can fill with pre-moistened cloth wipes (I can fit about 8 in at a time). The general rule of thumb is you need to use 1 cloth wipe for every 2-3 disposable wipes. If true then 8 wipes is likely to be more than sufficient while out and about, although I’ll probably still pack a bunch of dry ones in the bag as well.
Back to the poo disposal. The easiest way of getting it into the toilet is to give the nappy a gentle shake – providing its a solid one. If it’s quite runny then you can either grab some toilet paper and wipe the worst of it off into the toilet or if you’re like me and don’t want to be getting that close to the stuff then you can very easily install a handheld bidet to your toilet and simply spray the poo off with water. My father-in-law will be installing our one and he says it’ll be a quick 5 minute job – can’t remember how much the bidet cost me, about £20 I think.
You can also get liners to go within your cloth nappy. There are fleece ones that add extra absorbency and mean that you don’t have to hold the entire nappy over the toilet, just the liner. You can also get paper liners which you can shake off into the toilet and then dispose of into the bin. Personally I’m not a fan of the paper liners as it’s still creating waste. Some liners will advertise themselves as being flushable but, as with wipes, they should always be discarded in your household waste instead.
Disposables do have an advantage over cloth in that you can discard of them straight away. With cloth you will have to put a soiled nappy into a wet/dry bag (which tend to be great at containing smells in case you’re wondering) until you get home. I do think there’s a time and a place for disposables and for me that’s in my hospital bag. Some of you already know that I’d prefer to birth at home, but circumstances may crop that mean I have to birth at hospital instead, in which case I’ll have a bag packed and ready to go long before my due date. Now if I’m only birthing at the hospital then we’re fine to stick with cloth nappies. If there’s something a little more serious going on and we have to stay in for a few nights then sending a very stressed Paul to and from the hospital each day with a load of nappies just isn’t going to be practical. So I’ll be packing some disposables (probably just the free sample packs companies keep throwing at me at the moment) into my bag just in case, but all the while I’ll be praying I don’t need to use them and can instead pass them all on to the next person I know who is expecting.
I know some other real nappy advocates (not naming anyone in particular here) would also be pointing out all the different chemicals that are used in disposable nappies, but I don’t think it’s fair to be pointing out that a particular chemical was banned from it’s use in tampons – tampons are worn internally whereas nappies remain external to the body. So yes, it was right to ban the chemical from being used in tampons but to my knowledge it has not been linked with any form of illness when used in a nappy.
The only other thing to mention is that you should never use fabric conditioner when using cloth nappies, or cloth menstrual pads for that matter, as it inhibits the absorbency.
There are always special offers popping up online for real nappies and as I said before, most areas will have a nappy library service, so I strongly urge everyone with a little one to give them a go. You may love them or you may still prefer disposables, there’s only one way to find out.
Next month I’ll be starting to prepare for my postpartum bleed by making some cloth menstrual pads, and will be showing you how to make some too. Get those sewing machines ready everyone, you can always make some for charity if you don’t need any for yourself!
Okay the time has finally come for me to explain my position on plastic. A lot of people I talk to tend to fall into one of two categories: they either think I am totally anti-plastic or they think I’m over-reacting because plastic can be recycled… the truth actually lies somewhere in between these two extremes. I’ll err towards other materials over plastic, but sometimes it is unavoidable, and that’s okay – I’m not expecting everyone to suddenly remove all plastic from their lives, but I would like people to reduce their dependence on plastic items when more eco-friendly alternatives are available (and often cheaper).
There are so many different angles to discuss when it comes to plastic, so I’m going to start at the beginning of the manufacturing process and go all the way through to why I consider BPA-free plastics to be a load of BS!
So plastic begins life as a nurdle – tiny little pellets that look kind of like fish eggs, and unfortunately there has been an occasion where giant sacks full of nurdles have broken open in the ocean and, despite a massive clean-up effort, some of the nurdles have been consumed by marine life. These nurdles are the raw material from which manufacturers then go on to make the plastic items we come into contact with each day.
Other substances will be added to the nurdles during the manufacturing process in order to achieve a desired finish – as in how hard or flexible the plastic should be, how opaque should it be, will the plastic be on it’s own or will it be used to coat another substance etc? This leads to there being different types of plastic – and not all can be recycled! So, here’s how to know which plastics can be recycled: Somewhere on the item or the packaging the item came in there will be a triangle with a single number inside, ranging from 1-7, and some letters below the triangle. The number will tell what ‘family’ the plastic belongs to and will also indicate whether the item can be recycled; the letters underneath will tell you which specific type of plastic you are dealing with.
1 – PETE – usually clear and commonly used to form bottles. Will usually be recycled into carpeting and clothing fibres… in fact the plastic microfibres in clothes are being lost in the washing machine and ending up in the oceans, affecting marine life – if you have any fabrics containing plastic microfibres (and I pretty much guarantee you have!) then I highly recommend purchasing a super fine mesh laundry bag (such as a Guppy Friend) which will catch all the plastic particles in the was and prevent them from entering our waterways.
2 – HDPE – usually used for items such as milk bottles (come join me in having the milkman deliver glass milk bottles) and toiletries containers. Widely recycled and will typically wind up as pens or may be turned into fencing panels. This type of plastic is one of three types of plastic considered to be safe and has less chance of leaching chemicals into the product it contains (i.e. the milk).
3 – V or PVC – think food wrap, cooking oil bottles, even some shampoo bottles. It is unlikely your local recycling centre (or roadside collection) will accept this type of plastic. If you do live in an area that will accept it, your items will likely end up as flooring. Many of these types of plastic contain phthalates which have been linked to numerous health issues, and many will also contain DEHA which has also been linked to health issues as well as being considered carcinogenic with long-term exposure. NEVER burn these types of plastics! If you can’t live without wrapping your sandwiches in cling film then relax – there’s an eco-friendly alternative that I’ll be talking about in a later post.
4 – LDPE – Squeezy bottles, shopping bags (when you forget to take your cotton ones to the supermarket) and even the bag the bread comes in. Check with your local recycling centre as to whether they will accept this type or not – if they do, your old items will likely end up as a bin liner or postage bag. Number 4 plastics are also in the ‘safe’ category.
5 – PP – Usually found in yoghurt pots and medicine bottles. Is often recycled into car ice scrapers and bins. Also considered to be a safe plastic.
6 – PS – Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, which you will most likely come across in a package to protect the contents from being damaged in transit. You may also find it in CDs and disposable partyware. PS usually cannot be recycled but where possible may find its way to becoming insulation.
7 – Other, Misc – this is basically all other types of plastics that fall into any of the other 6 categories. Common items in this category include sunglasses, consumer electronics cases and nylon materials. Again, check with local recycling centres for specific items.
So yes, most plastics can be recycled but that’s definitely not the answer to our problems. The recycling process still requires a large amount of energy and water, albeit slightly less than producing plastics from raw materials making it the better option, but certainly not the best option.
I’ve said before that all the plastic ever produced is still in existence in one form or another, whether they’re recycled into something else or are sent to landfill. When you throw plastic away it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces – and has been found to have entered the food chain… the small pieces (sometimes whole pieces) of plastic are ingested by animals which are then consumed by us.
For some species this consumption of plastic is filling up their stomachs and preventing them from being able to consume their regular diet, resulting in starvation. As mentioned earlier some plastics can contain carcinogenic links and some are also known to have hormone disrupting properties, such as being able to mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body. When our food eats these plastics, so do we! Sometimes our consumption of these chemicals from plastics doesn’t come from the animals we eat but directly from the packaging the food comes in from the supermarket… Some plastics are sensitive to, and leach into our food as a result of, extreme heat (when put in the oven or microwave) and cold (when placed in the freezer, plus there are those that require no extremes at all, for instance the BPA found in the lining of some cans.
Ahhh the great BPA debate! So BPA has been found to leach from the container into the food/drink item contained within. In laboratory tests on animals BPA has been found to be carcinogenic and hormone disrupting, so everyone jumped on the ‘stay away from BPA’ bandwagon. In most cases BPA was replaced with BPS but when tested under the same conditions, BPS was found to be just as bad as BPA, yet no one seems to be trying to avoid BPS – I have seen hundreds of plastic items advertising themselves as BPA-free but only a couple also advertising themselves as being BPA & BPS free. So, in theory BPA and BPS are bad and should be avoided, right? Well, not so fast… like I said, these tests took place on laboratory animals and the levels of BPA/BPS administered was extremely high. I recall reading a study in which the levels of BPA being being passed in human urine was measured but to this day no one yet knows how much exposure is considered dangerous to humans. The bottom line: lets try to reduce our plastic usage in general, then whatever essential plastic remains in our lives, whether it contains BPA or not, is unlikely to have an impact our health. It will always have an impact on the environment and wildlife though… so please consider the true cost of an item before purchasing and decide if you really need it.
Earlier I mentioned the nurdles that have made their way into our oceans and consumed by marine life. I’ve also talked about the plastic microfibres that are being released from our clothes, but there is also another area that causes plastic to enter our waterways: toiletries. From toothpaste to exfoliating body wash – you’ll likely find tiny microbeads that will be washed away through your sewers and, because they’re so small, will find their way into the ocean… and I think you can already guess what is likely to happen to them then.
So this is obviously not the most comprehensive guide on plastics out there, and I’ll no doubt revisit the subject another time, but I hope it’s a good starting point for you to begin reducing your reliance on plastic. If you have any questions about plastics, just let me know and I’ll do my best to either answer myself or point you in the right direction.
As January draws to a close I can’t help but reflect on the previous year, and of course now is around the time of year that a lot of resolutions start to go out of the window. In general I don’t make resolutions besides just trying to live a more zero waste lifestyle… and that’s where I need to make a confession: I intentionally purchased some single-use plastic.
Let me back up to the start here and explain the events that led up to my purchase. Back in August my Grandad was diagnosed with a brain tumour and the doctors decided that treatment would be more detrimental in this instance so me, Paul and Grue packed up some stuff and moved back home for a bit to help take care of my Grandad until the end. My Grandad passed away peacefully at his home on the 17th November 2017. According to Hindu tradition the funeral should take place within 12 days, so we held the funeral on the 25th November. More people came to the house in the morning to pay their respects than we had anticipated and when we arrived at the crematorium not only were all the seats full but there were about as many people again standing up – it was nice to see that my Grandad had touched so many people! It was also one of those days where we experienced all seasons in one day: it was very foggy and cold to begin with, there was then a quick flurry of snow. On the drive to the crematorium the sunlight was almost blinding but nice and warm and then later on there was heavy rain and strong winds. Grandad used to love those days!
Anyway, the following morning, on the 26th November my Fitbit battery was low so I put it on to charge and then realised it had been a while since I last let it sync with the app, so I opened up the app and let it do its thing. After a little Sunday morning Snooze I had a quick look at my Fitbit stats and noticed that my resting heart rate had risen dramatically. Normally there are some daily fluctuations but my heart rate seems to have climbed and for just over a week had been fluctuating around the new much higher levels. I suddenly remembered an article I had read in which a man had asked for help in solving why his wife’s Fitbit stats had also done the same thing. Remembering the answer I went to the shop and purchased a home pregnancy test. Actually, I got 2 as there was only 1 type available: a Waitrose own brand twin pack.
The result was positive! Baby Hill is due 3rd August 2018. It’s been a crazy time mourning the loss of my Grandad but then also looking forward to welcoming a new life – still feeling a little torn at times to be honest.
There are a lot of things that will forever be out of my control from now on, but I will certainly do my absolute best to raise this baby with the least amount of environmental impact possible. Standby for future posts about cloth nappies and why we won’t be using plastic baby bottles. On that note, I should say that I will be aiming to post monthly rather than weekly from now on.
On the whole I know 2 little bits of plastic aren’t the end of the world but then I think about all the waste going to landfill and I can’t help but feel guilty. I was so happy when China announced it would no longer take the UK’s plastic waste, I thought it would finally force us, as a nation, to face up to our disposable plastic addiction and make a change for the better. Paul then pointed out that we’re far more likely to find some other developing nation to take our plastic instead… and I’m back to feeling pants about what we’re doing to our planet.
I wish you the very best of luck if you’re still hanging in there with your resolution(s) but I would also like to ask you to make 1 more, right now: please pick at least 1 thing to change towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle – reusable water bottle instead of disposable plastic ones? Can you go the rest of the year home cooking all meals to avoid takeaway/ready meal containers? Can you walk/cycle more? Even take your own reusable coffee cup? There are so many things we can change and over the coming months I’ll be attempting to bring you more ideas for easy changes. I just need you to commit to changing something. Right now we in Britain throw away enough waste to be able to fill the Royal Albert Hall in just 2 hours! That is simply not sustainable, but we can all work together to change that – it all starts with just 1 little change at a time. Lets not bully some small extremely impoverished nation into becoming our dumping ground. Lets not force someone else’s child have to scavenge through our litter to earn a living instead of going to school. Lets take responsibility for our own s**t for once. Lets make it so that the odd bit of disposable plastic (such as a pregnancy test) isn’t one day going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Lets save the effing planet!
Oh I do so love the festive season, it really is the most wonderful time of the year! From opening my advent calendar each day to hanging up my stocking for Santa (well, Paul) to fill with goodies… but, how do you maintain your favourite Christmas traditions when you’re zero waste?
Lets start with advent calendars. There are the traditional picture ones that every kid hates to get – you know the ones; they’re flat and you open each door and get just a nice picture – don’t even bother! Next up are the the chocolate ones that you’ll find in almost every shop you walk into at the moment – you get about as much chocolate in the whole thing as you do in a single bar and then you’re left with a large plastic tray encased in cardboard. Recently there has been an increase in alternative advent calendars – last year I had a makeup one… but again LOADS of plastic and cardboard.
There are some absolutely gorgeous reusable advent calendar options out there: On the years we have Christmas at our house I tend to put some chocolates into cotton drawstring pouches which I then hang on the tree… every day Paul and I then take a pouch each. It also means I don’t need to buy chocolate wrapped in foil to hang on the tree. You could also get some fabric paint to put little numbers on each pouch so you’re looking for a specific pouch rather than reaching for a random one. You could also do the numbers in different colours so each person is hunting for their own pouch on the correct day. On alternate years we’re with Paul’s family on Christmas day so we don’t usually bother putting a tree up… on those years we have a portable wooden advent calendar (bought for me by former colleagues), each drawer gets filled with chocolate, or sometimes something a little more special. The one I was given was already nicely decorated , although you can get plain ones that you can decorate yourself – great little project to keep kids (and big kids) busy on a rainy day! Hobbycraft have a range of plain wooden advent calendars available for under £20. Of course there are loads of pre-decorated ones available, ready for you to fill – prices vary considerably but a quick Google search will give you an idea of what you can get for your price range.
You can fill the advent calendar with absolutely anything – jewellery happens to fit inside very well (I should be so lucky!), although chocolate is somewhat traditional, small and inexpensive. The main issue with chocolate though is the individual foil wrapping it comes in. My all-time favourite chocolate shop, Montezuma’s, has chocolates available in glass clip-top jars (as loved by zero-wasters the world over!!), you can take the chocolate from the jar, put them into your advent calendar(s) and then reuse the jar for some Christmassy chutney or something. If you’re anything like my husband though, you’ll not want to bother with the advent calendar part and would rather just eat the chocolate straight from the jar! Alternatively, you could make your own chocolate very easily (again, fun little project to do with the kids). How about making up a batch of fudge as well so you’re not having chocolate everyday? The Snaffling Pig Co. has a great range of pork crackling in different flavours, which are also available in clip-top jars (albeit plastic ones). They also do a crackling and beer gift set which I know would go down well with quite a few guys I know.
Every year I get tempted to buy Paul a beer advent calendar but then I see the price and quickly back away. It would be pretty easy to make one though for a lot less. I’d first take a large box that would otherwise be going in the recycling (I tend to buy a lot of Christmas presents online), next cut bottle sized holes in the lid, place a bottle in each hole (maybe do the odd decoy one with chocolate or something instead of beer) and then I’d stick sheets of newspaper to the box to cover the holes (the free newspaper that gets put through the door every week). So this one isn’t really a zero waste option but it is reusing 2 items (box and newspaper) that would normally go straight into the recycling bin.
Instead of having a physical item, how about doing a WhatsApp advent scavenger hunt? Everyone in the group gets sent a list of 12 items (snowman, reindeer, OTT house lights etc) and each time they come across one of the items whilst out and about they take a pic and send it to the rest of the group – whoever gets all 12 first wins a little prize perhaps? Or maybe you could have a prize for each category and decide amongst yourselves who took the best pic in that category.
Alright, so there you have a few ideas for ways you can do a mostly zero waste advent calendar. So, what about the stocking?
First of all, how about making your own from old, worn out clothes? If you’re a knitter or crocheter you could always use up your scrap yarn to make an amazing, totally unique (and probably multi-coloured) stocking. The image above is a free stocking knitting pattern available on the Hobbycraft website. Failing that you can always buy one (just make sure you use the same one each year), and you can find ways of decorating and personalising it if you like. You could even go super old-school and use an actual sock!
Then comes the age-old question of what to put in it… Paul struggles with this even without us trying to avoid waste! Stocking filler gifts don’t have to be big, expensive things – save that for under the tree. So fruit is apparently traditional – the closest I ever got from my Mum was a Terry’s chocolate orange, but Paul’s Mum actually used to put a real satsuma in his stocking. Hankies are always useful for a zero waster, so I would suggest wrapping each thing in a hanky – perhaps a handful of nuts or any left-over chocolates, fudge or pork stratchings from the advent calendar? Bath bits like soap and bath bombs will always go down well, as will candles. If that’s a bit too girly, deodorant, pants and socks are always a staple in Paul’s stocking each year… I have no idea where they all keep disappearing to! Maybe this will be the last year I put those in his stocking, now that we’re trying to live zero waste. Anyway, to use a hanky as gift wrap just place the item in the middle of the hanky, tie the opposite corners together and then pop inside the stocking.
Of course you can put whatever you want inside a stocking or advent calendar, but please try to keep the 5 R’s in mind as you’re deciding what items to buy. I strongly recommend hitting local charity shops first and seeing what awesome bargains you can find before hitting the high street or online shops. The image at the very top is a photo of my dog posing with a little bone toy… someone I know had bought it for her daughter’s dog, but she didn’t like it at all, so rather than throw it away (which was her frst thought), she asked if she could give it to Grue, and he absolutely loved it! Yes, it was plastic so eventually has to be thrown away, but it is being thoroughly enjoyed first.
Best of luck with your own zero waste countdown to Christmas – please do let me know what you’re up to as you get ready for the big day!
Once you make the commitment to reducing the amount of rubbish you produce, you suddenly see packaging EVERYWHERE, as if for the fist time. We’re so used to seeing all this packaging that we almost distrust anything that doesn’t come encased in plastic. I have to admit though, it was only quite recently that I realised the absurdity of buying a bunch of bananas that come in a polythene bag – bananas come naturally bunched together and within their own natural packaging (unless of course you’re one of those people who eats the skin – weirdo!). I would understand if some bananas became seperated from the bunch so the supermarkets wanted to bag up a bunch of singles – personally I’d still prefer to buy a load of stray ones and just skip the bag though, but I can see the appeal there for some people.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand… how do you go shopping and avoid excess packaging? The short answer is: plan ahead! With a little bit of planning before you hit the shops, you’ll be able to reduce your environmental impact and save some pennies while you’re at it. Before we get into it, I just want to say that this is not an exhaustive list and if I’ve missed anything please feel free to get in touch. So here it is, 8 ways to shop zero waste (in no particular order):
Take your own bags! – Yeah, I know, I forget too sometimes… which is why I started to have a couple in the car at all times, one in my handbag and the rest hanging by the front door. Taking your own reusable bags will of course save you 5p per bag.
Only buy what you need – So this is something that goes directly against all supermarket marketing plans because they want you to spend as much money as possible, which is why you need to ignore all those tantalising “deals” and instead make a shopping list (and stick to it). Before drawing up your shopping list, you may find it easier to create a weekly meal plan to then know exactly what ingredients you’ll need to buy. Don’t get me wrong here, there are deals to be had at the supermarket but just remember those deals are there purely to encourage you to spend more money per shop.
Buy loose – You DO NOT NEED A PLASTIC BAG for your veg! You don’t need the pre-packed plastic bag supermarkets like to sell vegetables in (for more than the cost of buying the same items loose) and you also do not need to pull a plastic bag off the roll in order to put a few carrots or whatever into your basket – is it really so bad to have a carrot roll around your basket as you make your way to the checkout? If the answer is ‘yes’ then please invest in some reusable cloth produce bags (or even make your own).
Take your own packaging – I have a set of nesting stainless steel containers with plastic lids which I take everywhere with me. I buy all my meat from Franklins at Throncote – I just hand over each container and say what I would like them to put in it, they then weigh, fill, and stick a barcode on the lid, which I then take to the till and pay – job done! This way I’m buying local, the meat is of amazing quality, I can specify exactly how much I need and I don’t have to take home any single-use plastic packaging! I also take the containers to my Mum’s house to take home yummy left-overs; in fact I’ve also used the containers to take home left-overs from restaurants… when purchasing the containers I made sure to get ones that advertised themselves at leak-proof, which is just as well as I have needed to use them to transport soup before now. I was a little unsure about whipping out my own containers at first, because my husband assured me everyone would think it was weird, but I decided to give it a go anyway and sure enough I discovered absolutely nobody gave a f**k! Hence I started taking them everywhere.
Shop around – This isn’t an option for everyone, but if you can, try to get your veggies from a greengrocer, farm shop or market stall – it’ll be nice and fresh, inexpensive, packaging free and will help local businesses. Here in Biggleswade we’re very lucky to have quite a few farm shops and market traders in the vicinity. This doesn’t just apply to veggies – check out your local butcher, maybe buy your bread from an actual bakery, is there a working mill nearby where you can buy flour? Better yet, can you take and fill your own container with flour? Its not just the supermarkets that have the offers, and there can be huge savings available if you’re willing to spend a little time shopping around… you don’t even have to leave the house. If there’s an item I need to buy from a chain store then I’ll look around online first, and that includes hitting mysupermarket.co.uk which compares all the major UK supermarkets and shows you where to get the best value. If you want, you can even compare items by calorie or sugar content rather than price.
Buy in bulk – For those of you already familiar with the zero waste lifestyle, bulk to you probably means taking your own jars and containers to a shop, getting the tare weight and then filling up those containers with items from big bins full of household essentials. To everyone else, buying in bulk means buying a massive quantity of (usually) items that won’t spoil, like toilet paper for example. If you have a packaging-free bulk shop available in your vicinity then please do shop there as much as possible. For the rest of us, this is simply impossible – I’m not trekking down to London every time I want to fill up a mason jar with shampoo! Instead, I have had to go with the large quantity option (I did try another option first, more on that in the next post)… I have purchased 5 litre bottles of both shampoo and conditioner which I decant into soap dispenser bottles and refill as and when I need them. These 2x 5 litre bottles should last me around 6-8 months assuming my calculations are correct. Now, whilst buying a large quantity of something can equate to large monetary savings, this is simply not something everyone can afford to do, or at least not on their own – if you can, I strongly encourage you to split the cost with someone. It is a significant upfront investment but it will pay off in the long-run. In all honesty, I did resent paying £100 in one go for 2 bottles of haircare products, but I just have to keep reminding myself that in the same time period I would otherwise be spending £250 on smaller ‘normal’ sized bottles, which would overall also require the use of a greater amount of plastic than the 2 big bottles I have. I’m quite tempted to send the big bottles back once they’re empty to see if they can be refilled rather than recycled – I’ll let you know how I get on.
Go old-school – and sign up to have a glass bottle of milk delivered to your door. Sadly, long gone are the days of buying a bottle of milk from the shop and having a 2p refund for returning the empty bottle. Instead, the next best thing is having a milk delivery. It costs me 5p more to have a glass bottle rather than plastic from the supermarket, but unlike plastic, glass can be reused and (if it does break) is infinitely recycleable; and buying from the milkman instead of the supermarket is again helping support a local business. Oh and there’s no refund for leaving the empties on your doorstep to be collected – just the knowledge that each glass bottle represents one less plastic bottle being tossed out. Overall, more expensive, but still less than I’m saving on shampoo and conditioner.
Make your own – From soap to toothpaste and everything in between, you’d be amazed at just how easy it can be to make your own household essentials, for almost no money. And let’s face it, who can resist the awesome smell of bread being taken out of the oven?! Even if you have a gluten-free diet, that smell will still get the mouth watering! I plan to share with you some of my favourite make-yourself zero waste essentials in due course, but if you’re keen to dive in before then there are plenty of recipes/instructions all over the internet – best of luck to you (especially if you’re trying out homemade toothpaste – my first attempt was truly awful!), please let me know what you tried and how it went.
One final thing I just want to say, with regards to shopping around – I understand mobility may be an issue for some people and would therefore encourage you to get in touch with others nearby who will be able to assist – for example, here in Biggleswade we have a Good Neighbours scheme whereby people volunteer their time to help others in the community, be it doing some shopping, ironing, giving someone a lift, DIY jobs around the house, or even just a bit of company etc. If you’re struggling to make it out to market or to a farm shop (or anywhere for that matter) then please do get in touch with the scheme organisers and see if someone is able to give you a hand. Conversely, if you’re out and about with your stash of containers and reusable shopping bags, maybe sign up for the scheme as a volunteer and help your neighbours to live more sustainably.
Next week I’ll be covering ways to go zero waste in the bathroom, including what works for us, what didn’t work for us, and eco-friendly alternative options – could you switch to reusable toilet paper?
Hopefully you’ve fully mastered your P’s and Q’s by now, so it’s time to move on to your R’s. The 5 R’s of zero waste to be exact. In order, these are:
Refuse – In my opinion Refuse and Reduce go hand in hand, but the basic premise is to simply refuse anything you don’t need. Stranger thrusting leaflets at you that you’ll barely glance at before throwing them in the recycling bin – “no thanks”; do you really need the shrink wrapped broccoli that costs more than the loose broccoli sitting next to it? If you don’t need it, don’t let it into your home.
Reduce – So you’ve whittled down your shopping basket to items you definitely need, without any excess packaging, but now you need to reduce the items you do need to things you will definitely get through. For example, if you have a recipe that calls for 2 fresh lemons then buy 2 single lemons rather than 6 lemons encased in a plastic net advertising it’s 10% off – you’ll save money (even with the 10% off), won’t have 4 lemons rotting on your kitchen counter and you won’t be sending a plastic net to landfill.
Reuse – We have so much stuff these days it can often feel like our houses are more storage spaces rather than living spaces – how much of that old worn out stuff can you re-purpose? From re-gifting items to using old clothes as dust cloths and even retaining shower water to use on your garden plants (if you’re so inclined) – there are so many things we can do around the home to breathe new life into the stuff we already have instead of spending money on yet more stuff. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to hit the charity shops, like they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure – just make sure you’re buying something you definitely need! Better yet, can you borrow an item from someone else?
Recycle – The second to last option, just one step up from sending your rubbish to landfill, yet so many people think that by putting their recycling bin out every fortnight they’re doing their bit for the environment. The truth is recycling still requires a fair amount of energy, granted it’s less than what is required compared to producing items from virgin materials, but it’s not great. There is a wide range of items that can be recycled these days so make sure you check the label on any of the items that you MUST buy. However, a lot of items that get sent for recycling still ends up in a landfill for a number of reasons. There is a lot to be said about the ecological impact of the manufacture, recycling and disposal of plastic materials in particular, which will be the subject of a later post. In fact I’ll cover a whole range of topics illustrating how recycling is not the answer in due course. For now though, the message is simply that we need to address the issue further up the chain. Supermarkets and manufacturers have their role to play, but so do you… try to avoid purchasing items that require recycling or landfill disposal (that includes the packaging the item comes in).
Rot – If an item doesn’t fall into any of the other categories then it will sadly have to go to landfill where it will slowly break down over time, emit noxious gasses as it does and leach potentially harmful chemicals into the soil. As it currently stands, Brits produce enough landfill worthy waste to fill up the Royal Albert Hall in just 2 hours! The current housing shortage in the UK means many houses have been (and are being) built on former landfill sites, yet as the population grows, so too does the amount of waste we produce.
It’s easy to put our waste in the wheelie bin, roll it out to the pavement and then forget all about it once the lorry comes round to take it away, but the truth is there is no such thing as “away”. Do a quick image search for “Smokey Mountain Manila” and just know that we are responsible for that. Those images, in such stark contrast to the image at the top of this post, is what is beneath the feet of most of us – here in the UK we’re lucky enough to have a layer of soil over it, but the contents are the same.
As you can see, our current way of living simply isn’t sustainable. We all need to throw away our disposable lives and make a change towards using what we already have and only buying what we truly need. Yes, I know change is hard – I’ve been at this for almost a year now and still have changes to make, but going zero waste isn’t an overnight all-or-nothing switch, it’s about taking baby-steps in the right direction. I mean, you can take massive strides if you want to, but living a more eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle means making lasting change. The best way to ensure success is change gradually so you barely notice the difference. Make doing the right thing a habit that you keep building on, and one day you’ll look back and be amazed at just how far you’ve come, you’ll be amazed at the way you once lived, and all the waste you threw out, back in 2017.
So there you have it, the 5 R’s of zero waste, and hopefully some food for thought. Next week I’ll cover zero waste shopping in more detail – as much as I love living in Biggleswade it can be really hard to avoid packaging waste, so I’m going to share with you some very simple shopping changes (beyond plastic bags) you can implement wherever you live. I hope you’ll join me then, but if you have any questions or comments in the meantime then please get in touch.