Plastic fast part 5: Down the tubes!

5th July 2012 by

It’s week 4 of my drastic plastic fast. One of the rules I set myself was that we could keep on using plastic-packaged products that we had bought before the fast began – but that when those ran out, we’d have to stock up with a plastic-free alternative.

One of the products that had me stumped for a while was toothpaste – they all seem to come in plastic tubes, and I don’t recall seeing those old-school metal tubes for a long time – and even they would most likely have plastic caps. So a bit of investigation (and some brilliant advice from commenters on this blog and from Facebook friends – thank you!) unearthed some more sustainable options.

First up: toothy tabs! These strange creatures are basically toothpaste in the form of a dry tablet. They weren’t too hard to find in London. But to be honest I found the idea pretty out there and not very appealing, so I’ve been putting off trying them. Yesterday morning, however, I finally bit the bullet (or the tablet, rather). Here’s what happened:


OK, not bad at all. Thanks to Karen from The Rubbish Diet for pointing me to these. Much less weird an experience than I’d feared. But I’m afraid a little pricey compared to regular tubes: 40 tablets in a box, that’s 10 days’ worth of brushing in my house; cost: £2.50-3.50 per box depending on what flavours you go for.

At Otesha we’ve got a bit of a DIY, make-do-and-mend ethos, so why not make your own toothpaste? I haven’t tried this yet, but I intend to.  One recipe goes like this:

  1. Mix three parts baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) with one part table salt (sodium chloride).
  2. Add three teaspoons of glycerine for every 1/4 cup of dry mixture.
  3. Add enough water to make a thick paste. If desired, a few drops of peppermint oil may be added to improve the taste.
  4. Apply and use just as you would any other toothpaste. Store unused toothpaste at room temperature in a covered container.

Click here for the source of that one and for more info.

There are more pearls of wisdom for your pearly whites at Polythene Pam’s blog. Pam has chosen the home-made route for herself – and though some people will tell you bicarb plus a bit of salt will do the job, Pam has gone all gourmet with her toothpaste recipe.

Or… how about going foraging for a twig to chew on – a combined brush-and-paste?

This one kind of tickles me – I love the idea of spurning shopping altogether and just finding my toothbrushing solution in a local park or garden. Of course, it has to be a twig from a tree with the right properties. In Senegal you’ll find people using gum tree twigs, among other species – and they’re said not only to clean as effectively as any brush and paste but also to have medicinal properties.

Of course people have found a way to make a buck out of naturally-occurring products. Buying it takes the fun out of it if you ask me. Wikipedia has a list of natural chew twig species – but of course, as with any wild plant consumption, please do your research thoroughly before you put anything in your mouth. NB. Reading something on Wikipedia does not constitute doing your research!

Talking of wild foods, there’s still time to join our east London wild food cycle, which takes place this Saturday, 7 July, and ends with a feast at Otesha HQ. All the details are here.

That’s it for now.  A final thought from National Geographic (thanks, Val, for finding this great image):

 

 

 

 

My Drastic Plastic Fast part 3 – Heroes!

19th June 2012 by

As I write it’s Day 8 of my month-long plastic fast, and as someone who hates shopping I’m surprised to find myself buzzing even two days after my weekend shopping trip.

Following countless recommendations from colleagues and from the brilliantly helpful comments people left at part 1 and part 2 of this blog series, I made my way to Unpackaged - which does what it says on the tin (tin not provided).

Run by Kath Conway (far right, with Michael and Bridget), Unpackaged began as a simple market stall and then, when it became clear that there was a hunger out there for minimum-waste, packaging-free grocery shopping, it graduated four and a half years ago to its cute premises on Amwell Street, north London.

All along the inside of the windows, as well as taking centre stage in the main room of the shop, are great square tubs of dried goods, from pasta to nuts, lentils to risotto. You bring your own containers and scoop as much as you need before the Unpackaged team weigh and price your goods. If you haven’t brought your own containers you can invest in the shop’s selection of jars and swing-top bottles so you’re well-equipped on your next visit.

Along a high shelf sit gleaming metal vats of oils from which you can fill your old empty bottles. Certified ‘anti-mafia’ wine can be decanted from wooden barrels beside the counter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refills of eco-friendly Ecover cleaning products were available, but unusually the Unpackaged team will even do toilet cleaner refills – one of the plastic-banishing innovations I thought I’d never find.

And one of the best surprises was that you can even bring your jars to get refills of jam, pickles, chutneys and mustard. Oh, most important of all: Unpackaged has solved the coffee problem too. So anyone who has to spend time with me of a morning will be relieved by that news.

The shop should be upping sticks and moving to Hackney in east London later in the year, with plans for a bigger premises and an on-site cafe. And ultimately? Kath’s clearly passionate about doing her bit to destroy the grubby paradigm of waste, disposability and overpackaging we’re all herded into taking part in, so her ambition is to see Unpackaged branch out into other parts of London, and then possibly still further as a replicable ‘social franchise’. If you know Otesha, you’ll know the idea of replicating socially and environmentally positive ideas gets our juices flowing, so this was great to hear.  Taking this beyond a niche and middle-class market is essential, and that is definitely on Unpackaged’s agenda.

To answer a couple of common questions about Unpackaged: No, the bulk dried goods don’t generally arrive in plastic before being decanted into the tubs – most of them are delivered in large paper sacks. And is it more expensive to buy groceries this way? Kath says it depends on what you buy: the produce is high quality, so of course your organic Unpackaged muesli won’t compete on price with a Tesco Value equivalent – but if you compare like with like, with comparable quality, a lot of it works out cheaper than your overpackaged products elsewhere, she says. And though Unpackaged helps its customers to reduce their waste, what about the shop’s own garbage footprint? Well Kath says they put out perhaps half of one regular refuse sack per week, which is pretty incredible – and compares well with the five left out by a nearby shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next it was on to Lush, inside Liverpool Street Station, to try to solve some more thorny plastic-avoiding conundrums: shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste. How am I going to keep my curls luscious and my pearly whites pearly white without plastic containers?  Lush – and its amazingly well-informed staff – had the answers.  For shampoo and conditioner: solid rather than liquid products, and wrapped in paper. Oh, and deodorant too. And for my teeth? Well, no paste but instead…

… ‘toothy tabs’. Looking, frankly, like something you might be offered in a dodgy nightclub, these round tablets are a solid equivalent to toothpaste, packaged in a matchbox-like cardboard container. The idea is that you give them a bit of a nibble, get brushing – and they should foam up. I got one (Fairtrade) ‘Atomic’, which is clove and ginger flavoured, and one ‘Dirty’ spearmint-flavoured version.  If I’m honest, I’m not looking forward to this – I might be pleasantly surprised, but at this stage I’m not rushing to try them. I’ll definitely report back afterwards – watch this space.  The solid hair products I’m actually looking forward to trying (though I do wish Lush would tone down the scents and offer some unperfumed products). But hats off to Lush for answering a lot of the plastic problems I thought might scupper the plastic fast – and hats off to the staff for their knowledge and passion, which was infectious.

One last hero to namecheck today: Looking for a breakfast snack in Otesha’s neighbourhood, I came across Loves Cafe at 20 Gravel Lane, London E1. This plastic fast means nipping out for an impulse snack is really challenging, but this place wraps at least some of its sandwiches in a plant starch-derived ‘eco-wrapper’. They sit alongside a fair bit of actual plastic, but the owner, Peter, is clearly thinking about what his business can do to tread more lightly than the average caff. Nice one.

So lots of progress, lots of alternatives found.  But can you help with these?

  • Compost – where can I get this without carrying home a plastic sack?
  • Medicine – if we get sick and need a prescription, or want a quick headache cure, now what?
  • Stationery – and, if we’re going to nitpick (and we are, as this experiment is all about nitpicking), what about the plastic cylinders inside even wooden ballpoint pens?

That’s it for now.  Next update might be a confessional, I’m afraid…

Disclaimer: No freebies or any other benefits were received from Unpackaged, Lush or Loves for being mentioned here! Just good vibes, inspiration and really interesting conversations.

 

My Drastic Plastic Fast part 2 – Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

14th June 2012 by

It’s reached Day 3 of my Drastic Plastic Fast: my quest not to buy any plastic or plastic-packaged thing for one month. Part 1 explains why. And if you still need persuading that this is a subject that demands attention and action, have a look at this astonishingly beautiful but devastating video by Chris Jordan (who is trying to raise crowdfunding for what looks like a film well worth supporting).

My decision to try this plastic fast was a sudden one that I hadn’t given much thought to, and on the evening of Day 1 we sat down to figure out what it might mean for our household.

At first glance, it seemed like a piece of (unpackaged, home-baked) cake, which would need a wee bit of planning and few minor tweaks to our habits. So we wouldn’t buy plastic-wrapped vegetables? No problem! We tend to avoid them anyway.

But the more we thought it through, the more we realised just how much we’d bitten off – just how much plastic has pervaded our lives and our buying habits, including what we tend to think of as necessities as well as a lot of our favourite luxuries. Cutting down? No problemo! Cutting it out altogether? Ay caramba!

So here’s a list of the things that on Day 1 we quickly came to realise were going to present serious headaches if we were to find plastic-free alternatives. If you’ve got tips that will help, please get thee to the comments box below.

  • Coffee! Our Fairtrade organic coffee, bought from Oxfam, comes in a plastic pouch. We’re going to have to find a paper-wrapped alternative – but would it also be Fairtrade and organic?
  • Parmesan - aaargh!
  • Hair products – are we facing a month of dirty, fluffy hair when our shampoo and conditioner run out?
  • Saturday’s newspaper – we’re going to have to cancel it thanks to that plastic bag the magazine comes wrapped in – so no lazy Saturday morning in bed with the paper.
  • Cleaning materials – yes, we do already get refills of old bottles for our laundry liquid and washing up liquid – but have you ever seen toilet cleaner refills? Me neither. And what if we hadn’t wanted a plastic refill bottle in the first place?
  • Cooking oil and olive oil – even the glass bottles come with those plastic glugger things under the caps.
  • Compost – our organic peat-free compost comes in… plastic sacks of course.
  • Contact lenses!
  • No more money-saving big tubs of peanut butter
  • Cigarettes and lighters (obviously this is A Good Thing and a hurdle that I welcome!)
  • Washing up sponges – we’ve been using those plasticky foam ones (they’re so cheap, a pound or two for 10), and go through them quickly.
  • Our staples: couscous, rice, pasta.
  • Medicine – if we get sick, is it possible to have pills dispensed loose?!
  • Toothpaste – I’m stumped…
  • Bike bits – parts, tools, accessories.

To cut a long story short, we’ve got a lot of research to do, possibly a lot of travelling to find what we need in the packaging we need, and probably a bit of heavy lifting, for example if we need to upgrade to those massive hessian sacks of rice you can get in cash’n’carries (though aren’t even those sacks mostly plastic now?).  But it’s going to be really interesting, hopefully a lot of fun, very revealing and, I feel pretty sure, inspiring.

I’m sure we’ll come across some amazing alternatives that will take us by surprise, and I’ll be sharing those here when we find them.

So here’s find number 1: the washing up sponge issue is resolved already, thanks to a trip to Otesha’s local organic shop at Spitalfields. Here you see poor Sam on the right unhappily modelling the oil-derived, plasticky sponge of old. The happy fellow on the left, however, is sporting a luffa sponge. A fairly traded product from the Philippines, the label says it’s made of “a plant material that locks in carbon then biodegrades”, and grown without petrochemicals. The claim is that they last for up to a year, so I’ll be curious to see if that holds true. The cherry on the cake is that the makers encourage me to “recycle in your compost or wormery”. Happy to oblige.

 Head to Part 3 for some inspiring solutions

Plastic Fantastic

3rd November 2011 by

Ever mindful of the thousands of bits of brightly coloured plastic, created so quickly from oil that took millions of years to form, and the thousands of years they will take to degrade, it was exciting to stumble across Plastic Seconds.

Plastic Seconds is about unique and playful body adornments and people who are not scared to wear them and get noticed. It started with and is about a love for colourful plastic bottle tops – that cannot be recycled and get thrown away! Most of the Plastic Seconds pieces are limited editions and some are one of a kind, as the materials used are found objects collected through a random, fun and time consuming process.

Plastic seconds designer Maria Papadimitriou, creates necklaces out of pen lids, jigsaw pieces, mini soya sauce bottles, plugs, toothbrushes and bottle tops.

But she’s not the only one making beautiful things out of ugly bits of found plastic. Diana Boulay is also responding to an ecological problem creatively, she’s been making installations that explore colour and juxtaposition with ‘plastic cast-offs’ for more than 4 decades.

But the prize for the most impressive use of plastic has to go to Sayaka Ganz, who’s sculpted these incredible found objects d’art ‘Wayne’ (the eagle) and ‘Emergence’ (the two horses are called Night and Day).

But in close second is a beach wandering wilderbeast that roamed (yes it really moved) the beaches of Devon in 2010. Artist Theo Jansen created a 10 metre-long mechanical, walking ‘strandbeest’ (meaning beach animal) from scrap plastic tubing and water bottles. Taking inspiration from Darwinian evolution and  the beast used engineering principles to create sophisticated animal-like abilities.

I could go on and on. But I’ll stop here and see if anyone else has incredible plastic inventions to share.

Bin your bin

3rd May 2009 by

It’s the rubbish challenge – we challenge you to do away with your bin and see if you can go a month (or more) without producing any rubbish.

That means trying your very very best not to consume anything that can’t be reused, recycled or composted. What’s more, you’ve got to reuse, recycle or compost all those things, even if it means carting round old apples cores until you find a compost bin.

It’s not easy being rubbish free, so we’d like you to share with us your trials, tribulations and tactical ways of avoiding rubbish. We will, in turn, share it with the world via our website. So send us your stories, photos and tips to info@otesha.org.uk .

We tried to go rubbish free last year, with some success (we were rubbish-almost-negligable but not quite rubbish free). Biscuits were our downfall, so if anyone knows where we can get packaging-free biscuits we really want to know. Recipes for homemade biscuits are also valuable information.

Bonus points if you rope your whole household into it with you. Bin the bin! Bin the bin! Bin the bin!

And here’s the results-

Everyone we spoke to managed to signifcantly reduce their rubbish, but the scourge of plastic packaging could not be completely side-stepped.

The things that were hard to get rubbish free (that we couldn’t quite give up):

  • Cheeeeeeeeese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Camping equipment ordered online arrived packed to the hilt

Ways we found around creating rubbish:

  • taking our own plates and tupperware containers to the takeaway
  • seeking out unpackaged vegetables at the shops
  • baking biscuits and brownies instead of buying packaged ones
  • growing our own salad
  • foraging for free food

Jo’s joys of being rubbish-less:

The bin hasn’t entirely been binned but there have been a few long term changes:

  • Being the cheese addict that I am, I now only buy cheese from a cheese counter wrapped in paper or even better popped straight into my clean lunchbox.
  • I’ve discovered a great green grocers which sells fruit and veg bare and naked – including lovely herbs. No more supermarket fruit and veg for me.
  • If I eat from the work canteen I take my plate and cutlery and wash up afterwards – no more styrofoam containers and disposable plastic cutlery.
  • Camping was a little difficult, as we didn’t have a fridge, so we need to think about that a bit more before the next trip…
  • Pasta/rice – always wrapped in plastic…. I think I need to start shopping here at Unpackaged, a shop in North London which does what it says on the tin.
  • I’ve been doing some foraging this year, which I’ve never really got into before. We’ve eaten lots of greens (highlight being nettle paneer) and have enjoyed homemade elderflower cordial.

Eluned ranted a bit about her rubbish:

On the whole, I did fairly well at reducing my rubbish – but I was pretty rubbish (oh dear…) at binning my bin altogether.

Some things which helped:

  • Buying veg from a farmer’s market and getting a weekly veg box saved packaging – and often with veg boxes any packaging there is can be returned.
  • Buying meat from the butcher’s and taking a tupperware to carry it home in.
  • Guerilla composting (i.e. creating some neat little holes in the soil of London town, filling with veg scraps and covering over again).
  • Buying less, growing more and getting creative!

As I started turning more to these options, I found that week on week my bin got emptier and emptier.

However, the thing that really got me was that darned crinkly plastic!! If you shop in the supermarket, or buy anything brand new, this horrible crackly, clear un-recyclable rubbish wraps virtually everything. So surely if you avoid supermarkets and only buy second-hand goods you can do without it, right? But what I found is that even if you stick to local shops, veg boxes and farmer’s markets, and even  if you don’t buy anything non-essential or food-related (as I tried throughout these 4 weeks), its still hard to avoid; rye bread, pasta, nuts, pulses, cheese… it all comes wrapped.

What to do? Some suggestions I’ve heard include re-using the wrapping to make a toy for the cat, some kind of jewellery fashioned from scrumpled up plastic, or a contraption to scare birds off. Ideally though, I think I’d rather do without it full stop. Any other ideas on how to re-use this horrible stuff, or better still avoid it altogether?

Jessie told us:

One thing i did do which was probably the most significant is switch from rice/soya milks on my cereal, to fruit juice … so instead of a new tetrapak every 3 days or so (tons of difficult to recycle waste) i now have a small 500ml glass bottle of fruit juice concentrate to last me at least a month!

Additional tips for waste free periods- mooncups and washable moon pads.

Down at Camelot-the-eco-castle:

Adam, Nic and Kirsty made a planter out of a cereal packet and an old basket they found. They call it “sweet re-using-the-trash-for-green-things”.


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