Digital decluttering

As an ever increasing amount of our time is spent online, it’s hard to imagine ways that we can make this greener. Happily, it is possible, free, and a relatively quick process. The following took me an afternoon.

  1. Go through your ‘promotions’ folder in your email inbox. Unsubscribe from everything. This serves you in two ways – it will reduce the amount of spam mail you receive and so free up valuable server space. It will also remove some of the temptation to over consume. If you need something new, chances are you’ll have a point of purchase in mind anyway, and if you’re purchasing online, a quick search for ‘Store Name + discount codes’ should show you any voucher you’re afraid of missing out on.
  2. Delete all of your ‘promotional’ and ‘social’ emails. Again, the data contained within these emails is stored somewhere. If you delete the things you’re never going to look at, you make the storage space available for other data and this in turn means that increasing amounts of storage isn’t necessary.
  3. Turn off notification emails on your social media. Facebook and Twitter really don’t need to email you every time people interact with you. This will keep your ‘social’ tab nice and empty, and mean you won’t spend as much time clearing it out in future.
  4. Switch your browser to Ecosia. I’ve spoken about this before, but basically it’s like Google, except the ad revenue you generate goes towards planting trees.
  5. If you’re in the UK, sign up to the Mailing Preference Service. Though not technically decluttering your life online, it’s worth doing as it stops unsolicited post to your address.
  6. In addition to the Mailing Preference Service, sign up to the Post Office’s own version. This is slightly more convoluted, but absolutely worth doing. It prevents such a huge amount of waste every year per household.

Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list – there are doubtless loads of other things you can do in order to keep your digital impact down.

Do you have any suggestions to add to the list? I would love to hear them! As ever, you can contact me here or on Twitter.

An update on Fryer Soap

Any readers who have been with me for a while, might remember me having a go at making soap from fryer oil.

Buuut….

The oil never really lost the smell of food and though it did eventually lose the melted-toffee consistency in the drying process, it melted again in my soap bowl.

So, I tried a few different things with my second batch, and Oh My Goodness! What a difference it made!

One of the main issues with the soap was the smell. This time round, I filtered the oil the same as before, but then I left it in a bowl on the kitchen side for a week. I think ‘airing it out’ helped a lot, but I also heated it with some lavender flowers in then strained it again. I don’t know which of these things actually performed the magic of removed the smell but I don’t actually care! Chip stink was gone, and I was ready to go!

As I discussed previously, the first batch of soap had the texture of chewy toffee – not something I want from a soap! According to a book about soap making that I have, this was on account of a lower quality lye. So, to compensate, I took the quantity of lye that SoapCalc told me to use, and added 4g more. I just sort of guessed how much extra to add, because I’m not an exact cook and somehow, this just felt a bit like recipe fudging, rather than the science it actually is.

I also added a jar of coconut oil – this was primarily because I had it, don’t like cooking with it, and I wanted to use the jar for something else.

This time round, everything combined to make an absolutely perfect soap.  It smells clean, the texture is perfect, and it lathers wonderfully. I actually feel happy giving this as gifts. I’m so excited to try making some more – perhaps adding in some coffee grounds as an exfoliant, or some oats and camomile for a honey smell?

What are you favourite fragrances for soap? I’d love to try something a little different next time! As ever, you can contact me here, or on Twitter.

 

Draughts/checkers board DIY

Strategy games have become a big thing in our household, over the past few months. My youngest child, in particular, is a real lover of all things strategic.

Though my mum managed to find the mancala board my brother and I played with as children*, I couldn’t find a draughts/checkers set amongst things we already had.

Because of the pledge to buy nothing new, we started out by drawing a grid on paper and using random items from around the house as counters. This worked for a while, but when it became clear that the interest in patterns and strategy wasn’t going away, I wanted to make something a little more permanent and portable.

I don’t have any woodworking skills worth noting, but I can sew and knit, so the obvious solution was to create something using fabric/yarn.

I settled on fabric in the end, because it was quicker to run these squares through my sewing machine than it was to knit alternative shapes. It was also a really good way to use up some of my fabric scraps, rather than beginning a new ball of yarn. Of course, if you already have a checked blanket, you can forego this whole ‘step’ and just go find some counters.

I didn’t really measure anything out for this little patchwork rug – I just sort of made it up as I went along.

I started by finding a scrap of paper that was the width I want for each square. I folded at a 45 degree angle by bringing the left edge in line with the top edge.

I then cut this into a square along the bottom/right edge to create a template so that all of my squares were the same size.

After that, it was simply a case of sewing all of the squares together. I did the top by hand because it meant that I could chat to my parents while I worked and, as a result, the job got done quicker than if I’d waited to use the machine!

After I’d done that, I backed the top with a piece of an old sheet. All in all, this took a few hours of work and cost nothing. I used old buttons for counters.

Making this was actually quite interesting in a lot of ways. For a start, it made me think about the time spend in acquisition of things. For example, if one buys something from a physical store, it takes time to go there, select the item in question, pay for it and come home. Ordering things online takes even longer. If we can make-do with things we have in our possession already, we not only save ourselves money and precious resources, we also save time. And really, who doesn’t want a few more hours in the day?

I keep coming back to this – the concept of convenience sells, but surely it’s more convenient to use objects already in our homes than it is to source, fund and house new things? That saying about the plastic spoon springs to mind…

This little blanket has also made me think really hard about the things I give as ‘new baby’ gifts. In future, I’ll be making little checked quilts – 8×8 squares – with a large border. These can then go from being a cot blanket, to a play mat, to a draughts board – a gift that grows with the recipient. If I were really thinking ahead, I could make 32 small, easy, square bean-bags in the two opposing colours – I could fill them with different textured/scented fillings as sensory baby toys, but also stitch ‘p’ for ‘pawn’ or ‘q’ for ‘queen’ on one side so that when they’re no longer useful as said sensory toys, they could be used as draught counters when the blank side is showing, and chess counters when the letters are visible. On the back of the quilt, one could also sew different coloured, larger squares down the centre for a throwing game – bean bags in the furthest square get 10 points, those in the middle get 5 and those in the closest get 1 point, for example.

Cot blanket, play mat, sensory toys, bag toss, draughts, and chess – six uses for one gift.

This is the way we need to think about all the things we give – not just the initial moment of receipt, but also of how objects can be useful as time progresses. It’s certainly a lesson I’ll be taking with me, following this quick little project.

Have you ever tried making toys for children? I would love to hear what you’ve made. Contact me here, or on Twitter.

__
*If you fancy trying out mancala, you don’t need a board. Anything you have to hand is totally fine. There’s archaeological evidence of it having been played with dips in sand and rounded pebbles – you can absolutely use bowls and Lego blocks, circles on paper and some dried beans, or glass beads and jam jars. The important part is the rules.

Back to School backpack

As I said in a previous post about school uniform, we really don’t need to buy brand new paraphernalia for our children at the start of every school year. I’m a great believer in using what’s at hand and ‘making do’.

That said, my youngest starts school this year. There is no pre-existing backpack, or pencil case, or gym bag. And looking at the things we used for nursery, I don’t feel like there’s a way we can repurpose them on this occasion. So, as I’m not going to buy anything new – as per my birthday pledge – I thought I would share the making process as I attempt a backpack.

There are so many reasons why it makes sense to craft your own items (if you have the ability to do so) and I would definitely encourage you to read many of the amazing works out there about why we should reject high-street fashion/supermarket retail if we can afford to – both Lauren Bravo’s book and Lucy Siegle‘s spring instantly to mind. Plastic fabrics, dyes, and awful work environments are just a handful of issues inherent in cheap, imported goods.* Second hand is a great middle ground if you can’t afford something ethically produced and eBay is full of high quality satchels which are no longer seeing any love.

However, as I’ve got a large fabric stash (mostly inherited) and the skills to make a basic bag, this seems like the most cost-effective, eco-friendly way for me to do this.

So, without further soap-boxing…

Step One – Select your fabric. 

I’ve touched before on the advantages of natural fibres, but I’d like to add here that you’re looking for something hard-wearing and duarble. School bags see a lot of punishment from day-to-day. Denim is an obvious choice, and most houses have an old pair of jeans or two which aren’t getting worn. If you’re going to use old clothes, selecting those with as few seams as possible gives you a lot of options as you’ll have larger areas of ‘uninterrupted’ cloth.

Step Two – Decide on your size.

In our case, school provides a book-bag, so this satchel will largely be used for a gym kit, water bottle and snack, so it doesn’t need to be huge. I think a good rule, is to think about the largest thing that will need carrying and then make your design just that little bit larger – around 2 inches on each side is usually a good shout.

Step 3 – Decide how you’re going to carry the bag

In some cases, a drawstring bag will be enough, especially for a gym kit. In which case, don’t make life more complicated than it needs to be and check out this tutorial. It does instruct you to overlock/serge the sides, but you can get around this by sewing a ‘French seam’ instead – tutorial here. For anything else, I would have said to just zig-zag over the raw fabric, or use some pinking shears, but for something that children are going to toss around at school every day, I really think that the seams need to be fray-proof for longevity. I didn’t actually do anything special for the outer layer of this particular bag, though, as it’s a plastic cloth which doesn’t fray. It was my table cloth for years so saw a lot of usage – I know how it’s going to stand up to punishment! – so I didn’t make more work for myself.

Step… I’m just going to start uploading pictures now. Wish me luck. 

To start with, I cut my fabric… I chose an old, plastic-coated tablecloth for this bag. Because longevity. And children. And I had it already.

I cut the same size of lining fabric too. This lining came from an old bed sheet – you can see it behind the garish periodic table above.

I folded the outer layer in half and sewed along the side and bottom.

Then I folded the bag in such a way that I could sew across the corners to make the base square. It’s difficult to explain it  but I hope the pictures help…

I did the same to the lining (check out those French seams!) and it might be a little clearer here…

I then inserted a zip into the top of the bag. The zip I had in my stash wasn’t quite long enough, so I added some denim scraps to either end…

I’m not sure if you can really see it in the picture above, but after I’d added the zip, I added a little strap with a popper on. If my child chooses not to fasten the strap, the bag has about another 5-6 inches of space. Not necessary just now, but hopefully this will last a while and might become relevant later…

This was actually pretty difficult to do because I’d already put the zip in, but it was possible and that’s the main thing!

I just hand stitched this big metal popper into place. It’s not glamorous as far as closures go, but it does the job.

Then I had a break for about 2 weeks while I figured out what to do with the straps. I wanted a backpack, but I’d already added the zip which made adding straps… less than ideal. I also didn’t really have the various buckles and clips to make the straps adjustable which isn’t really ‘future-proof’.

So I decided to be a bit… creative with the straps. I measured from my child’s waist to shoulder, multiplied this by two, then measured from shoulder to shoulder, and added these numbers together. I then doubled that number. This gave me the length of continuous fabric I needed for… whatever you’d call the contraption I’m rigging up.

I then sewed a second length of this strap fabric and stitched it across the back of the bag, with little gaps for the length of strap to pass through. Because I’d already sewn the zip in place, this process redefined my personal idea of hell.

For the sake of my sanity, I decided to hand-sew the rest of the bag…

Hand stitching is one of those things we’re conditioned to think of as too slow to be practical, but actually, for small and fiddly objects (like this bag!) it’s probably faster than trying to find a machine-friendly alternative. I used backstitch to make the straps really secure and always sew with a thimble – this really helps when you’re sewing heavy fabric like the plastic table-cloth. Also worth noting and contrary to what I used to think, using a thinner needle tends to be easier than a thick one on thick fabrics.

You can see from the pictures below that the straps can move between the two holes and the function of the bag can change from backpack to shoulder bag.

The shoulder strap will make is easy for me to carry when I inevitably get dumped with the bag after school, but the backpack position is perfect for small people…

All that remained was to fit the lining. Again, I chose to do this by hand for speed and ease. Sewing around the zip is just vastly easier this way.

Once I’d done that, all that was left was to turn the whole thing inside out and try it on the enthusiastic recipient…

I’m not going to lie – this does look… homemade. Our school is tiny and rural, and the children are sweet. They do pick on one another every so often but in such a small community, there are few places to hide so I’m not overly worried about my child being bullied for not having something ‘bought’. I do think, though, that this is something which you might want to consider if your children attend a bigger school or is a little older and part of a brand-conscious crowd.

There are ways to ensure that the bag looks as good as possible – all of them easy, some of them free.
– Measure everything carefully
– Press your seams as you go along
– Use the sharpest scissors you have access to
– Use a new sewing-machine needle for each project
– Use as high quality fabric as you can
– Make sure to sew in all loose threads (I think this makes the biggest difference).

I didn’t actually buy anything for this project – most of it came from my mother-in-law’s substantial stash – so it was really cheap. You could technically make it without the strap to fasten the top down, so you don’t necessarily even need the popper.

Have you tried making school supplies before? How did you get on?

__
*There are, of course, arguments that we should continue to buy from these lower-priced places in order to prevent job-losses in overseas factories. I can absolutely see the reasoning behind this, and if this is where your moral compass is pointing you, then ‘you do you’ – crack on. If you do want change, though, you need to let the retail outlet you’re purchasing from know – drop them a Tweet, ask about how the garment workers are treated, and then don’t act as though the clothes you’ve bought are disposable. If enough brands are held accountable for the ethics of their products, then we might begin to see a change.

Depending on the point in time you’re reading this from, something like Lost Stock might be a good compromise. In short, due to the Covid pandemic, many UK retailers cancelled their orders leaving

Unexpectedly useful items for low-waste living

Whenever I find myself in a bit of a rut, I tend to find myselflooking online for some ideas about low-waste living. Sometimes I’ll find something new, but often, I keep coming across beginner tips in low-waste living. Which is great – we all have to start somewhere – but I do sometimes feel like after a certain point, we’re sort of just left to get on with things.

And on the one hand, I absolutely appreciate just how much of a difference it can make if you take your own reusable water bottle and coffee cup when you’re out and about, but I find myself wishing that there was more being written about the unexpected things which help with waste reduction.

So, keen to redress that balance, I thought I’d give you a run-down of things that I find really useful when it comes to cutting back…

  1. Funnels – I really, really love my jam funnel. The wide opening makes it ideal for decanting things like pasta and rice, preventing wastage through spillages. Since we started using our local refillery for dried goods, decanting dried goods has become a fairly regular occurance and whilst I could technically manage without this, it does make life significantly easier. The example below came (I think) from Lakeland many, many years ago. It has survived many jam seasons, the dishwasher, two children using it in the bath to slosh water… I highly recommend. The other funnel is equally useful for cordial, homemade schnapps, oils and all things liquid. I use the jam funnel to refil glass yogurt tubs for school lunches – replenishing the containers with chocolate mousse, or homemade jelly. The jam funnel also allows me to buy mayo and other table sauces in glass jars, then decant them into old plastic ‘squeezy’ bottles.

  2. A Bucket – This one might seem a little random, but I honestly don’t know where I’d be without my bucket! I’ve spoken before about trying to save water, but that’s not easy when you factor in how my shower works. You have to turn it on from across the corridor, before running into the bathroom, stripping off and jumping in!  Having a bucket on hand to retain water that would otherwise run down the drain really helps for watering plants – both inside and out. I also use the water to wash the car. Whilst we don’t have a water meter (water is included in council tax in Scotland), I can imagine this being especially useful for those who do.
  3. A teapot & thermal cup – This has halved the amount of tea I use. Not because I drink less tea, but because I waste less. At the moment, I use a little red, enamel pot. It happily fills two cups and uses one teaspoon of loose-leaf tea to do so. When I make tea now, I always pour a second cup into my thermal ‘to go’ mug and come back to it later. This means I don’t have to boil the kettle a second time, use another spoon of tea, or throw out the unused no-longer-hot liquid. Winning all round.

The beauty of all of these things, is that they tend to be present in most households. Perhaps not the jam-funnel, but the bucket and the teapot are fairly common items. The others are cheap to pick up second hand, and the bucket needn’t be a bucket – it could be an old waste-paper bin, a washing-up bowl, a particularly large saucepan…anything which catches water. You don’t need a teapot either – using a heat-proof jug is perfectly acceptable too.

What are the unexpectedly useful items on your low-waste list? I would love to hear them – either here or on Twitter.

Buy Nothing New – month 1 review

So, what I have a learned so far?

It’s only been a month, and I wasn’t a huge ‘consumer’ before I made this pledge, so I haven’t found the actual not-purchasing as difficult as I might have done, were my buying habits different. That said, books and other things I ordered online before my birthday have been coming through the post in drips, which means I haven’t felt it as acutely as I might.

What I have noticed, however, is a feeling of what can only be described as ‘overwhelm’ at the quantity of things in my house. As I’ve said before – we’re not a family overburdened with stuff. I like to aim for a quantity of items which would fit easily into two transit vans, should we ever need to move again – one for me to drive, and one for Husband. We also have no storage built into the house. As a property that was originally constructed in 1901, there just wasn’t a need for built-in wardrobes…

Even so, I’ve become acutely aware that if anything breaks, I can’t just throw it out and buy a replacement. This means that I’ve been hit with a sense of responsibilty for every single object I own. I feel that I am obligated to repair anything which needs it because I am unable to replace it in the near future.

Really, though, shouldn’t this just be usual?

Shouldn’t we feel a sense of responsibility to care for the items we’re custodians of?

Anyway, in practical terms, how have I done?

I have made purchases this month – though as specified, these are not new items. I’ve bought:

  • A second-hand set of stainless steel sieves. Two days after my birthday, our 25p-just-got-married-Sainsbury’s-Basics plastic sieve snapped in half. We tried to glue it and failed. We then tried to live without it – using a collinder instead – but failed in that too. Rice just poured through the holes. I bought second-hand commercial cookware, though, so these items should – in theory – last a domestic setting a lifetime.
  • Four Woodland Trust Guide Books. These were brand new, so I think I’ve technically broken my promise in the first month, but these aren’t for me so… does that technically count? I was caught off guard when the opportunity to meet my youngest child’s nursery teachers arose. We went foraging with the class one day and I thought it would be a nice ‘Thank You’ gift to hand over something about fungi. Because I’m fickle, I’m OK with this – it supports the Woodland Trust and shares a love of the outdoors.
  • A two-minute egg timer. Bought second-hand on eBay, this is to aid in the daily battle that is brushing teeth. It’s made of wood and glass, and is pre-loved. I think it fits the bill of ‘permitted’ purchases well.
  • Books. In addition to the guide books noted above, I bought the next comic in the series Husband is reading, and a violin music book for myself. In both instances, I bought these items used, though ironically, the violin music cost more second-hand than it did to buy new. That one stung a little, I will admit.

And that’s it! A total of just under £70 including postage.

Has there been anything I specifically wish I could buy, but didn’t?

  • Cotton wadding for the middle of a patchwork quilt. I’ve done the top layer, have the fabric for the bottom layer and just need some kind of filling. I’m sure that if I wait, a solution will present itself, but I’d love to tick another finished craft off my list, so this one’s haunting me a bit. If, by November, I haven’t found a way to complete this without making a purchase, I probably will buy some wadding and use the quilt as a gift.
  • Buy a Stranger a Book via the Big Green Bookshop. Every Wednesday, Simon at the Big Green Bookshop runs the ‘Buy a Stranger a Book‘ event on Twitter. It’s exactly what it sounds like – people can offer to purchase a copy of their favourite work for a stranger. I think I’ll make this an exception to the rule and participate in this going forward, but for June/July, I haven’t done it because I felt like I was breaking my own arbitrary rules.

‘The 5 Rs’ – Recycle

A bit of a different one this time (compared to ‘reduce‘ and ‘reuse‘), because I’m not going to talk about how to recycle. I’m going to tell you not to.

Recycling is great – don’t get me wrong – but people tend to act as though it solves all of our waste problems and it really, really doesn’t. Yes, it takes less energy to melt down a plastic milk bottle and make a new one than it does to extract oil, turn it into to plastic and then make it milk-bottle-shaped, but it also takes much less energy over time to just keep reusing a glass milk bottle instead. And glass can be recycled indefinitely so is less likely to end up in landfill/the sea at the end of its useful life. And if it does, it’s less likely to cause harm throughout the food chain.

So, remembering the 5 Rs, we can see that recycle is the penultimate step. By the time we get to this stage, if we’ve been doing our job properly, there shouldn’t be an awful lot of food-related or general recycling left.

So what about the things which are?

Well, when trying to dispose of larger objects – cot mattresses, furniture, carpets etc. – I try to pass them on via Freecycle. Interestingly, if they don’t find new homes through this site, they tend to via the ‘Freebies’ section on Gumtree, or – back when I used the platform – Facebook marketplace. I don’t know whether this is simply because people don’t expect something for nothing, but for whatever reason, things which won’t move on Freecycle will go on Gumtree.

For smaller items which aren’t collected as part of kerbside pickups, it’s worth checking on Terracycle. There are various collection points for hard-to-recycle goods throughout the country so seeing if there are any near you is a good start. For those with a few more spare pennies, you could invest in an ‘All-In-One’ zero waste box but – fair warning – they are an investment. The smallest option is over £100 so this does price it out many budgets. I don’t think it’s something that I’ll be doing, but it’s always nice to see that the option is there.

For a lot of objects, however, thinking outside of the box is required. When we cleaned out the bathroom at my inlaws’ house we excavated a lifetime of spectacles, stacked in neat, sedimentary layers in the cupboard. On the off chance, I asked my optician back in the UK if they could do anything with the collection. Surprisingly, they could! There are actually lots of options for old eyeglasses, some of which are listed in a Metro article here.

Obviously, there are so many things we could talk about disposing of here – pens, scissors, cutlery… the best place to start would be to make a list of the things that you’re disposing of, either regularly or irregularly. After you’ve safely/responsibly disposed of said item, it’s worth having a look at your list and checking out the alternatives that are out there.

Using the example of our sieve, which broke the other week:
– I tried to fix it.
– I tried to look for a way to recycle it (but couldn’t find one).
– I threw it away and tried to live without one. I struggled.
– I did some research as to what alternatives there were. Whilst I could buy a sustainable, fair trade wooden sieve, I wanted something that I wouldn’t have to replace in the future so I looked up industrial cookware on eBay and found a set of 3 used sieves for £25.

Whatever you’re throwing away, take a good look at it first. If you can’t mend it, try to live without it, and if you can’t do that then buy to last. This is the theory that the website (and attached book) Buy Me Once is all about.

It’s also worth noting that some companies will accept their products back. The first example which springs to mind is the oral-hygiene supplier Brush’d. The toothbrush heads we purchased from there came with a stamped, self-addressed envelope which makes it super-easy to recycle the heads. It’s really encouraging to see more companies doing this sort of thing.

Obviously, if you can find alternative products to your usual choices which don’t need recycling then that’s even better – pencil highlighters instead of plastic ones, pens with refillable ink cartridges instead of disposable ball-points, online magazine subscriiptions via the library… there are all sorts of more sustainable solutions out there.

I really hope this was helpful – it’s a hard topic to write about! I’d love to hear what you think – either here, or on Twitter.

Playtime

I hear it time and time again when the topic of children arises – how can they have so much stuff?

And at the risk of sounding brutal, the answer is: because we buy it for them.

But do we really need to?

It’s easy to feel judged as a parent – to feel as if by not doing what others around us are doing that we’re somehow failing. But that simply isn’t the case – all our children are different and they all have different interests and passions.

But we don’t need to buy whole new sets of playthings for each of these interests if we invest in good quality, versatile items to begin with. And these might not necessarily be toys. 

The loose parts play movement aims to foster a sense of creativity and inventiveness in children by providing them with tools from which to create the things they want to play with. There is a wealth of information online with ideas all over Pinterest , but there’s also a really comprehensive guide available here, on Play Scotland’s website.

Loose parts might include things like shells, buttons, sticks, empty picture frames, feathers, building blocks, small bean bags, dried peas, cups, and old baking equiptment.

In the picture above we’ve got some corks, stone eggs, chopsticks, wooden fruit, feathers and wooden cutlery.

We also have some beautiful old Danish and German coins we found, whilst clearing out my inlaws’ house.

The dried peas have long been a favourite to play with – they form the basis of many a pretend meal, as well as rubble for diggers and landslides for trains.

Blankets are another wonderful item to add to the mix too – old cot-blankets are ideal as they’re a managable size for small people. These serve as dressing up, dance floors, doll beds, landscapes, i-spy scapes (in the case of one particularly colourful patchwork example) and den-building fodder.

With the above selection of seeminly random objects, we’ve played supermarkets and cafes, built bridges and birdnests, and done no end of collages.

This is the bird my eldest made, following a trip to the local falconry centre.

Over the lockdown period, we used the loose parts to supplement learning – shown here when we modelled parts of the butterfly/caterpillar lifecycle.

The above wooden tray is actually a bread-board I found in a charity shop – the dip where the letters are is intended for butter, whilst the chamber holding the rice originally held a grid for slicing the bread over to stop the escape of bread crumbs.

I used the grid part for threading when the children were younger…
Nowadays, it tends to be used as a musical instrument ‘scraper’. Running a chopstick along the ridges makes an excellent sound.

In the past, it’s also been used for Hama beads – the beads themselves occupying the butter cavity, whilst the plate sit in the bit where the rice currently is. In fact, this single, unobtrusive item has possibly one of the most-used play things in our house. And I can use it for its intended purpose when the kids have finished with it!

There are lots of possible games and activities you can make from loose parts – we’ve enjoyed DIY draughts/checkers, a ring-toss game, mancala, and a whole variety of transient versions of snakes and ladders. You can make counting games, where children place the correct number of buttons or pine cones or blocks onto the relevant digit (i.e. 7 coins on the number 7), or bingo grids where they roll a dice and cover the number they roll using – for example – a shell.

We’ve made matching games, which are great for early literacy – matching shapes is an essential skill for early reading. All I did here was lay keys out on the scanner bed, then press scan.

One of our recent favourites has been float vs sink. You ask the child which items they think will float, and which they think will sink and then you experiment…

The only limits, really, are your imagination… and the size of item you include for younger children.

You can make use of loose parts anywhere – they’re great fun for playing with in the garden and on walks.

Most of the things we use either came from charity shops, the kitchen drawers, or the countryside around us. Conkers and acorns were gathered on woodland walks, wooden spoons and chopsticks were purloined from the kitchen, whilst corks, bobbins and buttons have been diligently saved over the years. Keys were purchased on eBay and things like the wooden fruit and stone eggs were picked up along the way in charity shops.

Obviously we do have purpose-made toys too, but I tend to focus on truly versatile things – Lego, wooden blocks, vehicles, animal figures, dolls, stuffed toys, musical instruments, and STEM sets like Georello gears and Magformer shapes. All of these are readily available second hand (though branded things like Lego can be slightly more costly, even when used).

Loose parts are cheap, easily-accessible and versatile. A few small drawers of them can replace cupboards-worth of conventional toys. The ones I’ve showcased here tend to be made from natural materials, but that’s only because I’ve been trying to reduce the plastics in my house for many years now. Plastic bottle tops, plastic bobbins, single-use neon shot glasses, plastic straws, plastic pipes… these are all useful, valuable resources too. The point is not to elimiate synthetic materials, but to have fewer, more versatile items. This, in turn, will reduce the need for new toys, the storage to keep them, and the production of them – most of the items listed have either been used before (i.e. corks and bobbins), or can be used after they’re grown out of (i.e. the bread board).

One of the single, easiest things we can do to reduce our environmental impact is to consume less. Loose parts are a great way to do this whilst fostering a love of imaginative and educational play.

I would love to hear any ideas for how to use loose parts – I’m always on the lookout for new ideas on how we can use them! You can contact me either here or on Twitter.

Beans, beans…

At the beginning of the pandemic, the panic-buying highlighted issues in our food supply chain. In response, there were so many posts online about self-sufficieny.

Whilst I’m sure most of these were well-intentioned, I think it’s unrealistic to expect that people who’ve never attempted gardening before could support themselves completely. That said, there are lots of awesome things you can do to supplement your food shopping with delicious home-grown vegetables, even if you just have a windowsill.

Before I start, I just want to say – I’m not a gardener. This is the first year we’ve tried harvesting more than some herbs, perennial fruit,  and what we can forage. We built the raised beds last November – prior to the pandemic – and have tried to fill them as best we can this season, using what we had on hand (as seeds and seedlings were hard to come by).

So, without further ado, here are the things we grew from the store cupboard.

Garlic

By putting a bulb of garlic in the fridge for a few weeks, and then planting the individual segments, we managed to start 2 rows of healthy garlic plants. When the plants start to wilt a little, I’ll cut the leaves, chop them and freeze them for a milder garlic taste that I can add to stir-fry etc. Then I’ll let the bulbs dry and store them somewhere dark, and cool, and dry.

Corriander

I have a large stash of herbs and spices, and basically anything called ‘seeds’ are exactly that (which took me far too long to realise!). I’ve been growing corriander seeds on the window ledge in the kitchen for months now and they’re doing really well.

Peas

The peas that I grow are from a packet of dried store-cupboard peas, gifted to us in the early 2010s by Husband’s Norwegian colleauge when she moved back to Norway. I couldn’t think of a way to use dried peas that anyone would actually eat, and my eldest was going through a phase of planting things so I let nature take its course with that one…. and got the most wonderful, prolific pea plants I’ve ever come across. I’ve been growing from them ever since, and even though they’re now (at least) ten years old, they still reliably germinate. In short, don’t overlook dried legumes – they’re a wonderful way to plant from your kitchen.

Beans

This one was actually a little mind-blowing (to me, because I’m a numbers nerd)…

A pack of beansprouts at Tesco (correct at the time of writing) costs 70p for 300g, or £2.34 per kilo.

You can buy a bag of dried beans for £2.25 a kilo (already slightly cheaper than the sprouted counterpart).

To sprout beans yourself, all you need is a jar, some cloth, an elastic band, and some water (and some beans, obviously). To be honest, the cloth and the band aren’t 100% necessary either.

Cover the bottom of your jar in beans. What you can see above is around 25-50g, or between 7-11p worth of beans.

Soak them in water for around an hour…

Fix the cloth onto the top of the jar with the elastic band, use it as a seive to remove the excess water and place on the window ledge.

After 24 hours, I could see the start of germination. I added a little more water…

After 48 hours, they looked like this.

After a week, they looked like the picture above! It’s amazing how they can go from just covering the bottom of the jar to filling it.

At this point, just as the first leaves are forming, I normally put the jar in the fridge. This slows growth and make them keep for longer.

The finished sprouts weigh around 200g, which means that per kilo – if my maths is correct – they cost around 35-55p. That’s a lower price per kilo than for 300g of pre-sprouted beans.

If you can buy the beans from a refillery – which I’m lucky to be able to – this results in zero waste sprouts. I use them as a base for winter salads, as texture in summer salads, in stir-frys, and on sandwiches. If you’re meal-planning anyway, it’s very little extra effort to put some ‘beans on to sprout’, and potentially save yourself a few pennies and a plastic carrier.

Even if you can’t buy the dried beans free from plastic, you’re still saving a lot of packaging from landfill. Let’s say – for the sake of easy numbers – that you sprout 50g of beans a time. This means that the 1kg back of beans will give you 20 sproutings. Each sprouting will give you around 250g (I’m saying 250g for easy maths, plus I’ve used the large example of 50g so the resulting sprouts will be slightly heavier). So that’s 20×250=5000g, or 5kg. The equivalent 300g packs of pre-sprouted beans would come in 16.6 plastic bags.

That’s effectively 15-16 plastic bags that you’ve saved from landfill, depending on whether you bought the dried beans loose or packaged.

Hhmmm… I got excited about beans there…

Moving on.

Brocolli & spring onions

Something to bear in mind while storing brocolli and spring onions:

Putting the stem of brocolli in water whilst in the fridge will keep it fresh for far longer. It is the flower of the plant, and needs treating as you would any cut flower.

Spring onions, meanwhile, usually have their roots which means they can effectively be used as ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetables. All you need to do is pop them in a glass with water on your window ledge, then when you need some, cut down to the leaves, stopping as the colour begins to change to white.

I’ve heard you can do the same thing with leeks, but I’ve never tried it. They don’t last that long in my house. I’m a big lover of leeks…

Regrow?

Finally, I thought I would touch on those videos that seem to be everywhere just now, implying that you can regrow all sorts of things from food scraps. I’ve heard that lots of the ideas don’t work, so I thought I’d test them by putting a lettuce nub in the ground… I’ll let you know how that pans out…

Don’t be discouraged, though. In the past, I’ve had great success as a result of Plants from Pips – specifically with avocado stones.

And that’s all, really.

Have you tried growing anything from kitchen scraps and seeds? I’d love to hear about any successes, either here or on Twitter.

Earth Overshoot Day

Recently, I stumbled upon the website Earth Overshoot Day.

I’ve known about the concept of Earth Overshoot Day for a while now. It is defined as being;

…the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.

In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day was a heartbreakingly early July 29th. In real terms, this means that we need over one-and-a-half planets to sustain the rate of human consumption.

Due to the Covid 19 outbreak, Earth Overshoot day falls on 22nd August, 2020 – later than the previous year. On the surface, this feels like cause for celebration – good news amidst the dark – but to me, it simply highlights the fact that even when so many nations effectively shut down, we’re still not staying within the planet’s ability to replenish its resources.

But I digress… On the website, there’s a calculator which allows you to estimate when your own personal Earth Overshoot Day is. I’ve had a go at these sorts of things before, via websites like the WWF. The results were not pretty. Partially, this was down to the level of accuracy – one isn’t able to select local produce, as I recall, and as far as I remember there are no options regarding the consumption of non-food items. The terrible results were also partially due to our heavy dependency on oil – for the past year, I’ve been doing 50miles per day in school drop-offs/pick-ups, and our house still runs on oil-fired central heating whilst being made of icy-cold rock.

As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for punishment, so I thought I’d have a go at this calculator and beat myself up a bit more about the fact that I’m overconsuming…

Except, given the results of the previous calculator, this was actually better than I’d feared.

Don’t misunderstand me – two months of overshoot is still two months too many – but actually, I expected to be closer to the achingly soon July date of 2019, or the still-too-early August 2020.

And in fairness to my former self, I filled this calculator in using my predicted miles for the coming academic year – 40 fewer every day (providing we all go back to school!) – now that both children are studying in the same place. That’s a huge relief.

And all this is well and good – I know where I need to cut back (oil!) – but what I really wanted to mention was the discrepency I came across the following morning. Because I intended to write about the calculator, I went back to check I’d got my numbers right. When I reached the end of this second calculation, I got a vastly different date – July 11th.

Confused, I went through each of the questions carefully and stumbled upon the one I hadn’t remembered to input extra detail into. It was a query which dealt with the consumption of objects around the house.

So, here are the answers I added:

Here are the answers which were automatically presumed:

As you can see, the difference between the responses isn’t huge. It’s not like the average is a ‘massive’ amount by modern consumer standards. But the difference in outcome is huge – 24th October to 11th July sort of huge.

That’s a whole 3 months and 13 days more resources used.

When we use these calculators, it’s easy to feel as though we’re not doing enough – not making any kind of difference – but that isn’t the case. The work we’re doing does matter and we should absolutely keep on doing it.

If you are going to have a go at one of these quizes, I would encourage you to fill it in multiple times. On completing it presuming that lockdown conditions continue for the year, for example, my overshoot day was December 3rd – simply by changing one aspect of our lives (namely travel).

By looking at the potentially huge impact of a single environmental decision, we can decide where best to personally focus our own efforts and where we can realistically make changes.

Coming out of lockdown, I’m definitely going to try and drive less, and to continue with my efforts to buy nothing new. Do you have any resolutions as this period of quarantine begins to ease off? I’d love to hear them, here or on Twitter.