Monday, 8 June 2015

A life less plastic

It started when we moved house and inherited a milkman. In addition to the pleasant early morning chime of glass on glass I soon noticed that for the first time in years, without the bulk of plastic milk bottles, our recycling box was actually able to contain everything we needed to put in it. Around the same time I saw

If you don't have four minutes to spare,I'll just say it gives you a very clear idea where small items of waste plastic end up - and for me it tipped a switch.

Recycling is important, absolutely, but so much of this stuff needn't be in circulation in the first place. We all know that, surely but its easy to forget how powerful we are as consumers. Products only get made because we buy them. Reducing and reusing does take a little extra effort and thought, but it sends a message that will be heeded if we all start doing it. After my milk bottle moment I started looking for other ways to tackle our waste output – and especially the plastic. The changes had to be simple, convenient and ideally cost neutral - life is busy,
Plastic waste on what should be a
pristine beach in the Shetland Isles
and household budgets are  tight. So we tried something new every few months, with the promise that if it didn’t work, we could go back, and not beat ourselves up about it. But as each change has become routine, I realised that over the years I’d increasingly allowed marketeers and retailers dictate what I buy, fallen for consumer myths, and been mislead by false economies, BOGOF deals and pseudo-convenience. It’s natural to be drawn to convenience, quality, hygiene, food safety, and value for money. But part of the problem is that many goods we’re brainwashed into thinking offer these advantages actually do nothing of the kind. Most of the changes we’ve made in the last five years have not only achieved the original intent of waste reduction, but also brought other advantages. Some also had drawbacks, but these have been minor. On balance we are living better, treading more lightly on the planet and saving money and time. The list below is by no means exhaustive. It’s just some of changes we found have made a difference, in more or less the order we made them.

Use a milkman
And remember to ask for glass bottles. They are heavier than plastic and require energy for washing but on balance they are better for the environment. We also asked our milkman to also supply fruit juice, butter and cream. It costs a bit more but with fewer reasons to visit a supermarket, we save time and avoid impulse buys.
Saved 182 plastic milk bottles a year

Buy laundry products in bulk
About three years ago, an online offer tempted me to buy three 15 litre boxes of Ecover laundry liquid (yes, 45 litres in total). I spent £90 – and yes there were yelps from a husbandly direction when the credit card bill came through. But that supply lasted almost two years. Since then I switched to power – Ecover Zero, still purchased in bulk,which is cheaper and more waste efficient still.
Saved waste (12 laundry liquid bottles per year)

Use soap bars for handwashing, bathing and showering
With help from the manufacturers there is a perception that liquid soaps and shower gels are better for your skin and more hygienic than bars of soap. Well actually, no. Low or neutral pH bars or those with glycerine needn’t dry your skin, and they are just as good at cleaning. Plus you use a lot less of them – especially in the shower, where it’s easy to slop on way more gel than you need. Rinse a soap bar after you’ve used it and use a draining soap dish so it doesn’t go soft. We use Dove bars for showering and bathing, and elsewhere we’re just working our way though the selection of posh soaps received as gifts – and at this rate I’ll probably never have to buy any.
Saved at least 20 hand soap and shower gel bottles and caps
Shampoo and conditioner from the brilliant

Use shampoo and conditioner bars
It took me a while to come around to solid hair products, partly because they aren’t as widely available as they should be. But not only do good solid shampoos have minimal packaging, they are indisputably better for the environment, with low impact production methods, and far fewer chemical nasties going down your plughole. The whole family now uses Lush shampoos and conditioner. The conditioner takes a bit of getting used to – you have to rub hard to get it into your hair, and you don’t get that slick slipperiness you might be used to from a regular conditioner. Unlike soap, I find it helps to leave the conditioner block in the shower to soften between uses. The end result is light, soft hair that smells lovely and feels really clean and healthy.
Saved 24 shampoo and conditioner bottles per year

Never buy anything with microbeads
Aaargh, whoever thought for a second this would be a good idea? Body scrubs and facial exfoliators I sort of get, if you’re into your extended skincare routines. But a gentle scrub with a loofah will do just as well on the tougher bits of your body. If you like the idea of a product that does the job there are plenty  of natural ones made with apricot kernels or peach stones, or even better you can make your own with sea salt in olive oil, or an handful of oatmeal. Read the label. Ban the beads.

Buy butter and cheese wrapped in waxed paper rather than in tubs or plastic
This means buying real butter rather than the spreadable varieties. But most better is perfectly spreadable if you don’t keep it in the fridge. You can’t generally buy the ‘healthy’ butter alternatives - those with vegetable oils or cholesterol busting ingredients - in paper because they are too soft. But you can at least reuse the tubs, which aren’t routinely recyclable.
Saved 52 tubs

 Reuse tubs with lids
Takeaway boxes and the tubs used for posh yogurts etc are useful for packed lunches or freezing other foods, storing meal portions or leftovers or organising bits and bobs in the DIY cupboard, garage or garden shed.

Cook and freeze in bulk
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I have less time for it than I did, so recently I started routinely making couple or triple quantities to bung in the freezer, which is now full of soups, stews, cakes, bread, pies, mashed potato portions and sauces. There’s nothing new or revolutionary in this – my mum always did it - but that common sense is easily eroded by the availability of readymade foods in jars, tubs and sachets and buns from the in store bakery.  Cooking from first principles is cheaper, healthier and generates a whole lot less waste.

Make squashes and cordials
Making cordials at home is very easy, and the flavour is infinitely better than shop bought stuff. At the moment I’m making elderflower cordial, last year I used garden strawberries the slugs had nibbled (carefully washed of course), and when I see a good deal on oranges or lemons I make a batch of citrus squash.
Saved about  12 large plastic squash bottles a year

Simple Citrus Squash
10 oranges or lemons,  or a mixture of the two
500mls water
500g sugar
Peel the zest from the fruit (just the coloured part not the pith) and chop it smallish pieces. Put it in a pan with the sugar and water. Stir as you heat to a low boil, then bubble  for about 30 minutes, so that the  volume reduces, and the cordial becomes syrupy. Meanwhile squeeze all the juice from the fruit. Add the juice to the syrupy cordial, and heat once more to the point of boiling. Take off the heat and allow to cool before straining into clean bottles. Keeps up to three months in the fridge.

Fruit and veg delivered by a local Yorkshire

Find alternatives to the supermarket
 Supermarkets package goods to maximise the efficiency of bulk transportation, storage and display, but if you’re buying local produce there’s little need for it. We use markets, farmshops, delis and a delivery scheme where veg comes come in a carboard box and reusable plastic bags. I’ve become a big fan dry goods shops like Scoops of Malton. They sell goods by weight, including branded cereals, baking ingredients, spices, dried fruit, sweets, nuts and a wide range of other groceries. They provide plastic bags to put things into – these are reusable if you transfer everything into tubs and jars at home then rinse and dry the bags, or you can take along your own containers to be filled. You can buy in bulk, or just the quantities you need for a recipe.
I spend less time and less money shopping this way than I did visiting a supermarket three times a week. We waste much less food, and chuck out vastly less packaging. This has been a winner all round.

What’s next?

With summer here, I’m remembering the marvellous machine my parents invested in about 1981, which my sister and I loved for several reasons. It made great fizzy drinks in reusable glass bottles, but also a variety of extraordinary hissing, parping noises. Yep... I’m on the lookout for a second-hand SodaStream.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Celebrating conservation – the ‘Green Oscars’

The Whitley Fund for Nature is a small charity that claims to punch well above its weight in terms of conservation outcomes. Last night I found out why.

Swanky award ceremonies are not my natural habitat. The mere act of digging out a frock and footwear I can’t run, climb, or ford puddles in is alien. But the Whitley Awards have more than a little red (should that be green) carpet cachet about them and wellies, I sensed, might not be de rigeur. The proceedings were hosted by Kate Humble, presented by HRH The Princess Royal, in the presence of Sir David Attenborough. The eight conservationists from around the world being presented with their awards had certainly scrubbed up, swapping their usual khaki shirts, caps and bush hats for formal attire in their national style, and they looked wonderful.

I’m not accustomed to commenting on fashion - but there is a first time for everything and this event was very much about people. There was talk of wildlife, of course, in particular the species being helped by the diverse projects the prize money will benefit – Philippine eagles, Asian elephants, cotton-top tamarins, Cross River gorillas, great Indian bustards, giant armadillos, Sumatran orangutans and the pollinating insects of Kenya - but for this one night the spotlight shifted from the animals to individual Homo sapiens who devote their lives to saving them. The grant recipients are already used to cajoling, persuading, educating, and campaigning on behalf of wildlife in their own countries and their own tongues – and as part of their week in London they’ve also received further media training. It showed – without exception they were engaging, inspiring and passionate. There is sometimes a gulf between scientists and conservation practitioners and the public they need to engage. Not so here. Language barriers seemed non-existent, which made for great communication but did make me wonder how WFN deal with applications from non-English speakers.

Kate Humble repeatedly referred to the event’s ability to dispel gloom – and undoubtedly the £1.1 million dished out by WFN this year will make a difference. It was nice to enter this bubble of goodwill. But award winner Panut Hadisiswoyo also reminded us that it was a bubble, when he appealed to the entire audience to act to halt the devastation of Indonesia’s remaining forests – which continues at a rate few of us can truly comprehend to meet the insatiable global demand for palm oil. Behind the accolades and the smiles, there is grim desperation. The fate of species and ecosystems depends on our lifestyle choices, our votes, our and our willingness to understand the provenance of the consumables we take for granted. WFN money is helping on the ground, but turning the tide takes more than cash. Here’s hoping that the gift of publicity will be equally well used.

The winners…
Ananda Kumar  - using modern communications including text alerts and mobile operated warning lights as part of an innovative Elephant Information Network in the tea growing regions of India’s Western Ghats. Human-elephant conflict in India costs hundreds of lives (human and elephant) every year in India. Early warning can make a critical difference in the outcome of encounters.

Jayson Ibanez lost his heart to the huge and flamboyant endemic Philippine eagle as a boy. 19 years later he is still striving to save the remaining 400 pairs that remain in the wild, establishing Local Conservation Areas and engaging local people as forest guards and bringing tangible economic and social benefits to communities in which eagle conservation takes place.

Former architect Rosamira Guillen’s career to an abrupt new turn when she met her first cotton-top tamarin – a tiny, endemic, and critically endangered Columbian primate.  Her organisation has already protected 1700ha of habitat and offered local communities education and alternative incomes that reduce pressure on the remaining forest. The cotton-top population is stabilising.

In Nigeria, Inaoyom Imong was once a hunter. Now he is Director of the Cross River Gorilla Landscape Project, working directly with local communities to ensure that the forests of Mbe Mountains are shared sustainably with our great ape cousins.

Medic turned bird conservationist Pramod Patil struck a chord when he addressed Sir David Attenborough ‘Sir David is my favourite human being on this Earth… I love you’. There is also no doubt which is his favourite bird – the great Indian bustard. Pramod is also inspiration in his own right – taking a landscape level approach to the conservation of this critically endangered species in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.

The enigmatic giant armadillo is now recognised as a flagship species for the tropical scrublands of Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil – thanks to the passion of Paris-born Arnaud Desbiez. He’ll be using the WFN grant money to conduct vital outreach and education and create more protected areas in the threatened Cerrado landscape.

Panut Hadisiswoyo leads on the development of conservation villages in part of Sumatra known as the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place on earth where orang-utan, elephant, tiger and rhino still coexist.

The big prize of the night went to Dino Martins – a previous award winner, who was presented with a Gold Award worth £50,000 to support his ongoing work for pollinators. With it, he'll tackle the import and use of unregistered pesticides in Africa, training  thousands of farmers in sustainable practice, and educating over 200,000 schoolchildren and university students in the importance of pollinators and sustainable agriculture.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Small steps

I'm fully in favour of exposing children to nature. I do my best to immerse my three-nearly-four year old son in wildlife experience at every opportunity and I've written about some of the ways it can be done, even if you don't live in a particularly wild spot (for example here). But the more I read about the importance of overturning nature deficit - of schemes to turn every child into a wild thing or a budding Bellamy by the age of eleven and three quarters, the more I'm convinced that each package - my own included, should come with a disclaimer. A warning that sometimes they just don't give a rat's arse.

Yesterday, we went bird watching.

He hadn't been keen from the outset, and we had a standoff in the carpark when he refused to wear his hat, gloves or coat. I eventually added them to the bag of spare clothes, camera, two pairs of binoculars (my old pocket ones are the right size for his face, though he usually prefers to look through the wrong end), waterproofs and a copy of the local wildlife trust magazine containing a reserve map I thought he'd like to follow. He's keen on maps, but today he shows no interest.

Three minutes from the car park, he is already trailing.

'Mummy I've run out of energy.'
'You can't have, you only just had lunch'

I point out blue tits, a wren, a pair of swaggering crows. But his focus remains firmly down as he dawdles from one muddy wheel rut to the next, spending the best part of a minute stamping with both wellies to ensure the ice in each is thoroughly broken before moving on. We inch along the track.

'It's a long way.'

'No it's really not, darling. Come on, there's a hide just round the corner'

'But it's taking a long time.' Of course it is, you're walking at about thirty metres a millennium.

'I need a wee'

Seizing the opportunity, I promise him a really good weeing tree just around the corner. If we get there, he can help the tree grow. We accelerate gratifyingly, managing a good fifty metres around the bend, where a large willow is duly watered, and trousers hitched back up. 'That tree is like a T. rex' he informs me on returning to the track. 'It's made of T. rexes all joined together'. I'm at a loss, but conversation is good, he doesn't notice walking when he's talking.

The hide comes into view - it's a tower, and the prospect of steps to climb captures his interest. We enter and I experience a slight flush of relief that it's empty as his wellies thud up and down the timbers, leaving thick clods of mud on the floor, and smearing the bench seat as he scrambles up to kneel at the window. I dig out his binoculars and open the hatch.

Before us on the flooded ings is a blanket of wigeon, and a dozen or so rafts of black-headed gulls in winter plumage. The air to the right bubbles with wader calls - we'd probably get a good view of lapwing from the next hide, but I'm already resigned to the fact we won't make it that far. But at last, he's using his binoculars. 'Look at those smart racing cars!' he shouts, as a pair of Mini Coopers track along a distant farm road.

After five minutes, we're back outside. I spot a burdock laden with sticky pompoms, and pick a few, attaching them to his fleece, his trousers and his fingers, and showing him the tiny hooks that make them snag. He is momentarily impressed. A wren shouts at us from the scrub to our left and another echoes the effrontery from the other side of the path. We manage to spot both of them, and a blood red bracket fungus growing on a stump before he's back on the puddles. This time the oozy mud gets the better of him and he slides into it, coating one trouser leg and one sleeve liberally. Now it really is time to head home, before the mud freezes. I don't fancy changing him here, and he's still refusing the coat so I decide to press on. I'm faintly losing the will to live myself.

I thrust the map into his hands so he can see where we are and how to get back to the car. He rolls it up and pretends it's a rocket. The zooming noises drown out further bird calls, but at least he's walking. I wander on, occupied by my own thoughts for a minute, then realise I'm way ahead again. I can't see him, so I retrace my steps back around the bend a little and spot him in another puddle. This one has claimed one of his wellies. He's leaning sideways trying to pull it out. It's like watching a tree in the moment after it's cut but before it begins to topple. He pulls. The welly plops free. Down he goes, muddying the other flank.

Twenty minutes of  incremental and increasingly grumpy progress later we're almost back at the car. I've resorted to bribery to keep him moving - there's a bag of crisps in the glove box, and chips for tea if he'll just keep going. I cross the last bridge and rummage for the keys. He's behind again. I turn to call for the thousandth time, aware that any serious birders on the reserve (fortunately we've hardly seen anyone) are probably sick of my yelling.

He's standing on the bridge in fading light, gazing skyward. I look up. Squadrons of gulls are coming in - I can see at least a dozen flocks of a 20 to 50 birds, and more keep materialising - heading for the ings in V formation.

'Look Mummy. They're flying in a shape like a rocket. That means they're all in their own slipstream'

I kiss his frozen cheek, change his sodden mud-caked clothes and buckle him into his carseat. He's asleep within two minutes, We drive home under a pinkening sky, drifts of birds straggling overhead like half-hearted signatures.

Be warned: Introducing a child to nature is a long-term investment that may not pay out every time or make a quick return. A child's interest in wildlife may go down as well as up. Your patience and self belief are at risk if you do not accept that gains are sometimes negligible.