Low waste advent calendar alternatives

It’s nearly time for the countdown to Christmas to begin, so I thought I would take a moment today to speak about advent calendars.

There are loads of really great ways to reduce the waste created by advent calendars. You could opt for a traditional paper-only offering, or buy a toy-themed calendar and reuse this every year – then there’s the refillable option, and books!

Initially, we tried a Lego calendar with the intention of reusing it indefinitely, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work in our house. Lego seems to inspire such creativity in my kids that they would build that day’s model, then grab blocks from our existing stash and then set about incorporating the calendar bricks into some vast structure that only they could fathom the purpose of… By the time day 2 was over, we realised we weren’t ever going to manage to keep the Christmas blocks seperate.

In the end, I opted for a reusable cloth calendar. It’s beautiful – handmade by the lady who runs House of Wonderland (which you should absolutely take a look at – she has the most beautiful things).

In the pockets, I put a combination of plastic-free sweets and little slips of papers with activities on. Initially, I found it really hard to come up with things to do which didn’t focus on getting, but I think we had a good list last year:

  1. Welcome to DECEMBER! Let’s have some fun! (Chocolate lollies)
  2. Let’s have a walk if the weather is nice and collect some pine cones to decorate the table with.
  3. Write Christmas cards to people we love. You can even draw pictures to put in too!
  4. Take the cards to the post box and send them on their way!
  5. Make some bird feeders from lard and birdseed.
  6. Bake something to give to all the houses on the track.
  7. Here’s £20 – lets see how many yummy things we can get for the food bank.
  8. Write a list of all the things you’re grateful for which happened this year.
  9. Watch the Muppet Christmas Carol.
  10. Sort through our books and give any we don’t want to the library at school.
  11. Make a special card/present for the postie – she’s so busy just now!
  12. Have fun with some sparklers.
  13. Sort through our toys and see if the library wants any for the toy boxes there.
  14. Find out about ‘Sal’s shoes’, ‘Child’s Play’ and ‘The Little Princess Trust’. Choose which one gets £5.
  15. Let’s have a morning dance party before school!
  16. Let’s put up and decorate the Christmas tree!
  17. Watch the Christmas Curious George film.
  18. Let’s read a book by candlelight.
  19. Let’s take your Christmas gifts to your teachers at school & nursery.
  20. Let’s dip some marshmallows in white chocolate to make snowmen!
  21. Write down some of the fun things we did this year – it’s good to remember.
  22. Go to Nannan’s and bake some mince pies!
  23. Not everyone is celebrating Christmas – let’s learn about some other religions.
  24. Watch some Christmas carols on YouTube.

In total, this calendar costs just over £25 – this money covers the food bank donation, the charity donation, and any sundries (like marshmallows) which we don’t already have in the house. Obviously, you could change this amount to suit your own budget, or replace these activities with free things, such as litter picks, or carol services – whatever your wallet and schedule allows for.

All of this was pretty perfect when there was only one child – but then there were two… We did start by taking it in turns to check the calendar, which was fine, but then I read about book calendars so we made one of those too and the kids go turn-about for each.

The book calendar was super easy and very cheap – we just went through our collection and plucked out any stories which were wintery. I stashed them in my room and brought one out a day for the run up to Christmas. Rather than wrapping each one, I made a cloth bag out of some festive fabric from my stash and ploped a new book in each day. At the end of the season, I packed the books away with the decorations so that when the next year rolled around, the stories were both novel and nostalgic – perfect!

What are your advent traditions? I’d love to hear about them! 

 

Super affordable, eco-friendly gift ideas

I’m still in the depths of #NothingNewNovember, but that hasn’t slowed the relentless crawl towards Christmas.

This time of year is full of contradictions – it’s a time of enormous waste, but simultaneously one in which families stretch themselves to their financial limit. And often beyond.

So, what can we do to redress this balance?

There are lots of ways in which you can reduce the amount of waste you create this winter.

To help me do so, I’m going to begin by looking at the ‘5 Rs’ of Zero Waste:

So, how do we REFUSE this Christmas?

My large group of university friends and I have agreed not to buy one another gifts this year, and another friend and I have agreed not to buy for one another’s children. None of the people involved need anything new, so an electronic greeting will be more than enough.

And what if – for whatever reason – you can’t come to this sort of agreement with friends and family? REDUCE.

This could be as simple as starting a Secret Santa, rather than buying individual gifts for everyone in your friendship group/office. With children, we’ve had great success with the following formula for Christmas lists –

Something they WANT
Something they NEED
Something to WEAR
& Something to READ

want need wear read printable tags | Cool for Christmas ...

Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of buying additional ‘bits’ for stockings, on top of the above however having a specific set of perameters to aim for has helped to focus my mind considerably when shopping for gifts for my children.

Using existing toys in new ways is another way to reduce the amount of things entering the house. If you have siblings with an appropriate age gap, having the eldest gift one of thier outgrown toys to the youngest can be a great way of fostering generosity between family members.

I’ve not tried it myself, but I have heard great things about Whirli – a toy-box subscription. This sharing of resources is a great way to reduce unwanted toys in the house – when something is no longer played with, it can be returned for another child to enjoy. This looks a little costly for us, to be honest, but

And while we’re on the idea of libraries, I really love the idea of letting someone else choose my books for a set amount of time.

For adults, it might also be possible to gift a charity donation, or offer to pay a month’s fee for a subscription service they already use. Even something as simple as offering to do someone’s ironing, or bring their lunch to work for a week at a time of their choice, or gifting someone a home-cooked meal could serve as a Christmas present. Not all gifts need to be physical – our time is valuable too.

Finally, consumables are an excellent idea – especially if you know it’s something the recipient loves. These transient items take up no space in the home long-term and prove useful in day-to-day life.

And if this isn’t an option? REUSE.

Most of the gifts I’ve actually purchased this year are used items and certainly for the rest of this month, I only plan to buy used things.

There are loads of ways to get pre-loved objects – car-boot sales, charity shops and online are tried and tested methods, but organising a swap amongst friends is surprisingly easy. When I hosted a swap of children’s items, we agreed to only bring things we’d be happy to recieve as a gift and that anything left at the end would be donated to a specific place (in our case, the donations were split between the local women’s shelter and the local council’s social work department).

This is all well and good, but where does RECYCLE fit into all of this?

Well, it’s possibly to recycle items already in your house. Over the course of the year, you might have been given things that aren’t to your taste, or made purchases you now regret. These can either be traded – as above – or gifted directly.

You can also ‘recycle’ toys already in use. Lego has a variety of free building instructions on their site which you can print off. Then it’s just a matter of raking through your stash to find the relevant blocks. From the looks of things, this would work better for younger builders, but there’s nothing to stop you from building your own huge fortress, photographing it as you go, and then smashing it to form a DIY kit. As we’re swimming in Lego, inherited from my brother, this is something I plan to do for my youngest, so I’ll update you on my progress there…

Possibly the best point to make regarding recycling is that any gift wraps should be carefully considered.

Yes, most paper is recyclable, but wrapping with metalic patterns and any covered in plastic tape isn’t. Perhaps it’s possible to reuse some gift-bags from previous years, or to use cloth to wrap with – wouldn’t a lovely bar of homemade soap, wrapped in a face cloth be a great gift? Or using second-hand silk scarves instead of paper? There are loads of great tutorials online for how to do this – just search ‘Furoshiki’.

Alternatively, reusing old maps, old calendars (pictured below), old books, old magazines and newspaper, with plastic-free tape or plain string can look fantastic. Failing that, buying a new roll of brown packing paper is probably the most eco-friendly gift wrap you can get. All of these can be dressed with ribbon, drawings or evergreen trimmings.

Hopefully, you’ll have no need to ROT anything over this festive season, so instead, if you’re still considering new gifts, try to make things yourself from salvaged materials, or buy ethically and intentionally. Avoiding palm oil, choosing FSC wood products and simply not purchasing more than you need to, all make a positive impact at this time of year. This is also a great opportunity to gift items like tote bags and reusable water bottles as the recipient of these gifts might begin to make small changes in their own life.

I would love to hear your top low-waste, low-cost gifts. Why not come and share them on Twitter?

Back to the beginning…

So far, I’ve been covering where we are, in terms of reducing waste.

Which is fine – I can only really write about what I know, afterall. However, everyone has to start somewhere so I thought I would share some of the first actions I took towards reducing our household waste.

The following is largely taken from a pair of articles I wrote for our local magazine – AB54.

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Easy first steps towards Zero Waste are all over the internet, but here’s where we began…

Bottled Water is a major contributor to waste problems worldwide and is possibly one of the easiest issues to address. If you’re at a restaurant, specifically ask for tap water when you’re ordering. When you’re out-and-about, carry a refillable bottle. Even if you only buy water once a week on average, that’s 52 bottles a year you’re saving from landfill or recycling.

Packaged Food is another quick fix – when shopping for vegetables, choose loose ones and lay them directly in your trolley. They’ll be weighed at the counter exactly as they would have been in the little plastic bags and you can pack them in your choice of containers for the ride home. Now that free carrier bags from the supermarket are a thing of the past, it’s only a very small stretch to toss a Tupperware container in with your shopping bags to transport any fragile vegetables (like tomatoes, for example).

Another great way of doing away with food packaging is to take an old-fashioned packed lunch. Plastic Sandwich Cases or Tubs from Pasta Salads soon mount up. On average, a full time employee spends 232 days a year at work – accounting for holidays and weekends – so, imagine just how much rubbish you’d create if you bought a supermarket lunch every day. 232 plastic containers… most of which never see recycling bins as they’re eaten on the go and are tossed into street-corner, unsorted, trash cans. Even if the thought of getting up early to make packed lunch doesn’t appeal, even something as simple as carrying a cutlery set can help to cut down waste – no more plastic stirrers for tea or coffee, no more plastic spoons or forks for the tubs of pasta salad.

The suggestions above are easy and workable into every-day life without much of a sacrifice. If you’re already employing some of these suggestions, why not consider swapping out some of your disposable household products for reusable ones? Kitchen-roll can be replaced with muslin cloths (something many of us have left-over from when our children were babies), tissues can be replaced with handkerchiefs (and these have the added bonus of being much softer on the nose during hayfever season!), whilst swapping just one disposable nappy a day for cloth can save 365 nappies a year from landfill – and with a pack of 35 Pampers costing around £8.50, it’d also save you approximately £85 a year.

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After we’d got to grips with the above, we moved onto the following…

One of the easiest ways to cut down on waste is to opt out of unsolicited mail. All you need to do is visit the Mail Preference Service (MPS) website and follow the steps there. Whilst the process of opting out is quick and easy, it can take between 2-4 months for this to take full effect, so keep that in mind if you continue to receive unexpected advertisements after you’ve signed up with MPS.

A huge source of household waste is food packaging, but this too can be reduced – even if you only have access to mainstream supermarkets. Choosing loose fruit and vegetables is an obvious way of doing this, but considering your options in other areas of the store can also lead to reduced waste. For example, if you’re presented with two brands of muesli – one in a cardboard box and one in a plastic bag – your instinct might be to choose the cardboard box, however as the box will inevitably contain a plastic bag of muesli anyway, you’re better in this instance to choose the breakfast without the cardboard. Even though the box is recyclable/compostable, it’s better that it’s not there to begin with. The bag alone is adequate packaging.

It’s also worth trying to embrace the bakery section of the supermarket.  By taking your own cloth bags with you, you can eliminate plastic packaging from baked goods. The bakery is an especially good place to bring your own containers as bread isn’t costed according to weight – you pay per item – so your bag isn’t going to add anything to the price of your shop by being heavier than its plastic counterpart.

It might also be worth looking for plastic free packaging in the freezer section. This takes trial and error, of course, but things like frozen breaded fish are often available in cardboard boxes, whilst in the fridge they might be presented in a plastic tray that’s covered in cling film and a cardboard sleeve.

It’s also worth having a look for aqua-faba recipes online. Aqua-faba is the water that canned legumes come in and it’s an amazing substitute for egg whites. I was sceptical when I first read about it but if you drain a can of chick-peas or kidney beans and whisk the fluid, it peaks like egg whites. You can use this to create sweet, nutty meringues or deeply flavoursome chocolate mousses – all from something you’d normally throw away! And if you’re using up a waste product instead of eggs, you’re cutting down on food consumption.

Finally, don’t overlook the borrowing of things you might only use once – for example, books, films and video games. Books and films can be rented from the library service (the later for a small fee) and video games can be rented via a postal subscription. Not only does this mean that more people can use the same resource making it a greener option, but you also stand to save some money too. If getting to the library or a post box is an issue, then using websites like Abandonware or Project Gutenburg might be a better option. The former offers video games on which the copyright has expired, whilst the latter is a library of free eBooks, all available within the public domain.

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So, what are your top tips for someone just beginning to reduce thier waste?

In the kitchen – another text-heavy post

Recently, I covered changes I have made and plan to make in my bathroom.

Today, it’s the kitchen’s turn. I’m not going to cover grocery purchases (having touched upon that here) but I will make mentionof foraging and home-grown produce.

So far, here are the changes I’ve managed to make:
– We’ve reduced the amount of washing-up liquid we use by putting it in a handpump by the sink, instead of leaving it in its bottle.
– I’ve knitted cotton dish-cloths to avoid disposable ones. These can be bleached and washed at 90C should I feel that the regular wash isn’t getting them clean enough.
– We use a recycled dish-brush with exchangable heads (not perfect, but more on that later).
– I’ve replaced kitchen roll/paper napkins with washable ones. These are made from old tea-towels.
– I clean with citrus vinegar and knitted cloths.
– Rather than buy specific storage tubs, I’ve been reusing jars and plastic tubs from the food we’ve been unable to buy package free.
– We dry many of our own herbs/teas.
– We forage as many mushrooms as we can get our mits on!
– We use dishwasher powder instead of tablets – this is available package-free from the local refillery and as we’re in a soft-water area, we can get away with using far less than the recommended amount.
– We use washing powder from a cardboard box (at the moment it’s ASDA’s own brand non-bio) but in future I’ll be trying this from the local refillery.
– We use loose-leaf tea and coffee-beans, rather than bags and pods.
– We have a small one-litre kettle so that we seldom boil too much water.

Once again, pretty good so far. But where could we improve?

To begin with, there’s the scrubbing brush – still plastic, though recycled plastic, and with heads that switch out.

We had tried the lovely wooden brushes which everyone on Pinterest seems to have, but just couldn’t get on with them. Both Husband and I felt like we were bending the neck every time we applied any pressure, but for those of you who are slightly less heavy-handed, they make a really lovely plastic-free alternative.

With both brushes, we tried to extend the lives of the heads by putting them through the dishwasher on the top shelf – a successful endeavour in both cases, though we did get better results with the plastic brush.

So what else still happens in our kitchen which shouldn’t?

We do still boil too much water, despite the mini kettle. I went through a phase of keeping a large Thermos on the side to put surplus boiled water in, but I forgot to use it afterwards. Also, during the winter months, we use a log-burner to heat the living-room and if I actually pulled myself together and bought a hob-top kettle, I could very easily just plop the kettle on the stove and make a cuppa without using electricity at all.

I still use baking paper – especially when making bread in the slow cooker. I’ve tried all sorts of other things to stop the dough from sticking but nothing else has worked. That said, I do reuse the sheets until they grow brittle so it’s still not a single-use item for me. I’d like to invest in some proper reusable ones, but at the moment, it’s not a top priority.

I’ll talk about the raised vegetable beds which husband has made in another post, but for now, let me simply say that they need filling with earth. In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to find a container to put compostable matter in. I do already use a compost bin (when I remember) but to be honest, most of our food-waste goes in the kitchen-caddy to be removed by the local council. Which is fine – don’t get me wrong – but it seems ludicrous sending things away to rot when I need rotted matter here… And again, I know I can’t fill all four beds with kitchen waste (though I reckon I could fill one with spent tea-leafs alone…) but coupled with some manure from the farm at the top of the hill and the bits of tree we need to take down, I imagine we can vastly reduce the amount of soil we need to bring in.

This brings me neatly on to what I feel is the biggest point of waste in my kitchen – the spent tea and coffee. Husband grinds his own coffee beans and uses a filter, which is great, and I’ve been a leaf-tea person since I started drinking tea so at least there’s no plastic there, but there are a lot of leavings. I think I’ve figured out a way to turn some of the coffee grounds into soap as a sort of exfoliator, but the tea has me stumped. I know it will all rot down, but I’m very keen to explore any alternatives – I seem to get through so much daily.

I’ve mentioned my ‘Adventure Kit’ in other posts but I feel it’s worth popping in here too, as reusable cutlery and enamel plates are so incredibly useful. The plates in particular are the stars of my kitchen – they can go straight from freezer to oven (and frequently do when I freeze a crumble), they’re dishwasher safe and are perfect for camping, eating picnics and basically everything.

Is there anything I’ve failed to mention here? Is there something I’ve missed? I’d love to hear other ways I can make a difference in my kitchen.

 

 

 

#NothingNewNovember

In a recent exploration of Twitter, I stumbled upon the hashtag #NothingNewNovember. And yes, it’s an old one, but one I’m going to attempt it this year regardless.

The reason this appeals so much to me is the timing – it comes at a point in the year when I would normally be getting ready for Christmas. And yes, I already buy a large number of my gifts used – particularly for my own children – but this is a great way to focus my mind in the run up to what is arguably the most wasteful time of year.

I’ll be doing another Do Nation pledge to help me along with this too – All Made Up, in which those participating promise to make a certain number of gifts themselves. As a crafter – I knit well, crochet adequately, and mash things through a sewing machine – I’ve got loads of resources with which to create amazing gifts so I probably need to purchase very little to make this Christmas happen (though many people will be getting knitted socks…).

In addition to only buying used items to gift, or making gifts myself, I intend to buy nothing at all for  my household during this time – beyond the obvious consumables (i.e. food, soaps, petrol etc.)

This will be especially difficult given the fact that I’m going to visit friends midway through the month.

What are your top tips for reducing the amount you buy over the holiday season? Come and let me know!

In the bathroom – a big, long, text-heavy post

When I first started writing this blog, I mentioned that I’d like to reduce our waste in the bathroom.

So far, we’ve managed to make quite a few changes:
– Soap bars instead of plastic bottles
– Shampoo bars instead of the liquid alternative
– a menstrual cup instead of tampons/pads
– paper-stemmed cotton buds
– using crystal deoderant – it lasts years!
– not using seperate body wash or conditioner
– using vinegar to clean with

A lot of these alterations were driven by cost – bars of soap and shampoo last so much longer than liquid versions and the menstrual cup was a superb investment*.

I’ve used PitROK crystal deoderant for over a decade now and have only had to replace my stick once (because I lost it!) in that whole time. So, even though Boots has it sitting at £6.59, it’s definitely a worthwhile investment and saves money long-term. It does have a plastic ‘sleeve’ – for lack of a better word – but you can buy a plastic-free crystal deoderant from Salt Of The Earth. When my current PitROK stick finally runs out, I’ll be replacing it with this – it’s £4.85, so slightly cheaper. Do bear in mind, though that it’s 75g vs 100g of the PitROK.

So far, so good. Until you bear in mind that at the same time, we still use an electric toothbrush, Aldi’s own brand of dental floss and Tesco Essentials plastic-tubed toothpaste so there’s still considerable work to do.

Let’s not even start on my contact lenses…

Anyway. Going forward. What can I change?

I don’t remeber how much exactly the Aldi floss cost, and unfortunately I can’t find it online, but I did get two dispensers full in one pack and I seem to recall it costing between £1.99-£2.99 (though I could be wrong). According to MySupermarket**, expensive Oral B dental floss costs £2 for 50m at Tesco, making it 4p per metre.

The most cost effective eco-alternative I’ve found so far is the Bambaw floss from EthicalSuperstore – it’s made from cornstarch so is suitable for vegans too. For 50m, plus the reusable dispenser, it works out at £5.75 – just under 12p per metre. The refils cost £6.79 for two rolls, so work out at just under 7p per metre – a significant saving, though still nearly double the cost of the expensive supermarket variety.

Am I going to make the switch? I feel like floss is something that I either have to spend silly money on to get an earth-friendly alternative, or something I have to find an alternative to. I’m wondering if wooden toothpicks might be able to achieve a similar thing and between now and running out of floss, I’ll be looking for some in plastic-free packaging.

Floss aside, teeth are still a big source of plastic in this house. As I stated above, toothpaste tubes and electric brush-heads are big contributors but for the moment, I don’t feel like the former is something I can change. I know, I know… there are loads of alternatives out there, but there are family members with additional sensory needs and to have finally found a toothpaste we all get along with is such a relief that I can’t begin to think of changing that. Should Tesco alter their Essentials recipe, we’ll revisit this with reusable alternatives, but for now, I can’t see that changing.

I can, however, make a compromise with the brush-heads we use. We bought the electric toothbrush as a last-ditch attempt to ensure clean-teeth in the aforementioned family member so I’m not willing to get rid of it. We’ve done our best to choose one that will last a long time – it’s a ‘cheapy’ (from a set of two) that we bought from Costco in the days when we had a membership. The batteries are just standard AA size so we can employ our rechargables here. The fact that we can remove the batteries also means that when the toothbrush finally does stop working (four years and counting so far, though – touch wood!) we can carry on using the rechargables in other things whilst we recycle the handle as a small appliance with the local council.

It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s not the worst, either. As to the brush-heads though… Until now, we’ve been bulk buying them and still have six-months worth, which we’ll use before buying more. After that, however, we’ll be trialing some LiveCoCo heads which you can return to the manufacturer for recycling. These do cost significantly more than the standard ones (£9.99 for two, direct from the manufacturer!), but I’ll be switching to a cheaper bamboo manual brush at that point in an effort to offset some of the cost. The cheap toothpaste also helps here…

So what haven’t I covered yet?

In the past, we’ve tried the Who Gives a Crap (WGAC) toilet paper and… honestly? It clogged our drain. I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of the loo roll – it’s probably a combination of things. At the same time as trying it, I tried to curb our water consumption by putting full plastic bottles in the cisterns***. On top of that, the decline from our house to the septic tank isn’t that steep so things are predisposed to getting stuck. The WGAC loo roll is great at breaking down, but as a result it did so long before it reached our tank and we were left rodding the drains on nearly a daily – and sometimes twice daily – basis. It wasn’t a sustainable way to live long term so we’ve gone back to loo roll that takes a bit longer to disintegrate. In the future, I’ll be looking to try their more expensive bamboo range, but for now that’s just not possible financially.

Who Gives A Crap - Recycled Plastic Free Toilet Paper ...

Generally, we’ve been selecting 3-ply packs from budget supermarkets which use FSC trees and have reyclable outer bags. Recently though, I discovered Tesco’s own-brand recycled loo roll and so far so good on that. I need to do more research regarding the use of bleach etc. but this might be the best solution for us, going forward.

Cosmetics can be a big producer of waste – both in terms of plastic, unused products, and unwanted gifts. I don’t personally wear make-up, but I do appreciate a good flanel to wash my face at night. Back in the days when I could muster enough energy to paint my face, I found that the terry cloth of the towel was better than any brand of wipe, so I purchased a pack of small terry nappies. After children, they were purloined for their proper purpose, but I’m still partial to a flanel. Being a knitter/crocheter, I’ve seen a lot of really great, free patterns out there for washable wipes and it’s worth checking through the Ravelry archives. This is the one I often make to gift, and I’m super-impressed by this alternative shower-scrubbie.

I think the final thing of note might be razors. My husband stopped shaving many, many, pre-me years ago and I’m still working my way through the razor heads he bought for his Gilette during this time. Obviously, the most eco-friendly thing to do in regards to body-hair is not to shave, but for my own reasons, this isn’t an option for me.

Lots of people have written extensively about the advantages of safety razors over disposable/mixed-material reusables and I’d urge you to read some of their articles about life with one, as I still need to try one for myself. One of the main ideas is that being made primarily from metal, there are few ways for the razor handle to break, the blade is easily changed, is metal only so can be recycled and comes in much less packaging than the mixed-material alternatives.

So after all that text, is there anything you can see that I’ve missed out? I’d love to hear some of your tips for going low-waste in the bathroom – why don’t you come join me on Twitter?

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*I do realise that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of menstrual cups but there are other reusable menstrual products out there – washable pads, period-panties, natural sponges etc – as well as disposable products which don’t contain plastic, or reusable applicators for conventional tampons.  If you’re interested in learning more, the Sustainable(ish) Podcast covers the topic of periods on three seperate episodes.

**Correct at time of publication.

***Using full plastic bottles is generally considered better practise than putting a brick in the cistern – the bottles doesn’t break down and wreck your pipes over time. Don’t learn this the hard way. Student landlords aren’t especially lenient…

 

Microwave drying

I’ve spoken briefly before about drying herbs in the microwave, in order to make stock/boullion. Now, as the weather starts to turn, I’m drying what’s left of my annual herbs, and the perenials which die back over winter.

Lovage is amongst the first to yellow, but with its big, fleshy leaves and a celery-like, peppery taste, this forms the basis of most of our winter stews. In order to keep us in lovage over winter, the kids and I gathered as many good leafs as we could and took them inside.

Once washed and dried, we spread them on a microwavable plate and cooked on high for two minutes, stopping half-way through to let the steam out of the microwave in order to speed up the process.

After the two minutes of cooking time, the leafs had retainned their vibrant green colour and wonderful smell, but could be easily crumbled and compacted into a jar.

(The jar in the picture above is actually the mint we dried… I had a brain fart and photographed the wrong container, and it’s too dark to redo it now).

There are many wonderful things about drying herbs this way.

  • You can enjoy herbs which aren’t readily available at the supermarket, all year round.
  • There is no packaging to dispose of – plastic or otherwise!
  • The process is quick and relatively energy efficient – definitely faster than drying in an oven!
  • It’s free, aside from the power usage.
  • It’s a great way to use up any excess fresh herbs you buy, rather than letting them turn to slime in the fridge.
  • Most leafs can be dried in this way. In addition to mint, I’ve also tried camomile greens, nettles and borage. I’m going to try raspberry leaf next summer, too.
  • This is a great activity for even very young children to help with – there’s no cutting involved, no hot pans and it’s easy to see results in minutes.

Do you dry your own herbs and teas? I’d love to hear your experiences – why not join me on Twitter?

Making the most of what we’ve got – thoughts on food

It’s really easy to get into the habit of automatically ditching things, either because it’s what you’ve seen others do, or simply because you’re used to produce looking slightly different – shining cream potatoes or glossy-skinned apples, for example.

This year, our apples took a real battering. The skins were cracked by the sun and rain in combination, and beneath those blemishes were what looked like apple scab. Reading online, the best way to ‘treat’* the fungus is to make sure there’s as little detritus left from the tree for the fungus to grow on, after the tree has dropped its fruit and leafs for the year.

Being honest, my initial thought was to simply scoop everything up into the compost after the last leaf had fallen, but the tree has always been such an excellent fruiter that doing so seemed oddly like the betrayal of an old friend.

So, when a child-sized barrow full of apples was proudly presented to me, I decided to have a go at making the most of the fruit that was there, regardless of looks.

Sure enough, there is a lot of unusable apple in there. The cracks in the peel had made the flesh into a wasp-buffet, which in turn had turned the wasps into gourmet food for our local bird pupolation so stayed on after supper for the apple desert course.

Knowing that apple scab wasn’t a harmful fungus, I decided to just cut away the cracked areas and peel the skin off. Usually I don’t bother peeling the apples from the garden – they’re grown so far from anything that even resembles a pesticide that a rinse under the tap is more than enough to clean them – but on this occasion, I made the choice to strip them back to the fruit itself.

When that was done, I chopped them up and separated the core from the flesh. I packed the cores into a jar and covered them with a water/sugar solution to make cyder vinegar. There are recipes everywhere but Spot of Earth does a pretty detailed tutorial of how to make it.

With the ‘proper’ fruit, I filled a crumble pan and made a topping – a vegan one, in fact (using vegetable oil in place of butter works really well if you use golden sugar – the oil is cheaper too). There were still a good few cups full of chopped apple left so I grabbed the baby slow-cooker which I inherited from my grandmother, filled it and made my go-to apple butter recipe – 1 cup of sugar and 1 tsp of powdered cinamon for every 2 cups of fruit .

The apple butter will top my porridge in the coming months, and my toast, and any yogurt I happen to achieve… or honestly, I’ll just eat it with a spoon. It’s honestly the greatest preserve I have ever eaten.

It got me to thinking about other foods which don’t get eaten because of… well, I don’t know why.

I’ve always dug out the seeds from pumpkins, melons and squashes – because why would I buy these when they come free in my food. I either toast them in the oven – if we’re already drying mushrooms, or herbs or vegetable peel – or on the car dash-board. I either use them in bread to add some extra texture, or just snack on them.

So when we didn’t eat all of the cake that I made earlier in the week, I resolved not to throw it out. In fairness to my family, this particular cake was terrible – I ran out of cocoa powder so it was a not-so-chocolatey batter that I overbaked in cupcake cases to become what were essentially powder-dry hockey-pucks.

Ahem. Not my finest hour.

Anyway, using a pestle and mortar – I kid you not – I mashed up the ‘cake’. Then I poured homemade cherry schnapps onto it. Not much – just a tablespoon, but it’s potent stuff so that flavoured the lot. Then I folded this cake-powder mush into some chocolate buttercream icing. This, I rolled into balls and covered in dark chocolate.

Honestly, they’re so good I would make bad cake on purpose again.

After the cake incident, I had a look through the council-collected food waste caddy we keep under the sink. The contents tend to be things that are half-eaten. Single, once-bitten potatoes – for example – feature heavily, but not as heavily as Husband’s coffee grounds or my spent loose-leaf tea.

So my challenge is – how would you use these things? The tea and coffee, specifically, rather than the bitten tatties. Why not come and let me know on Twitter?

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*Unfortunately, there’s no real way to treat it that I’ve seen so I can only really attempt to minimise its impact on future crops.

Turning the Tide on Plastic – Lucy Siegle

When the lovely refillery in our village opened (how lucky are we?), they were selling copies of Lucy Siegle’s book, Turning the Tidy on Plastic.

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I’ve read Lucy’s earlier book – ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World’ – and really like the way she writes, so I couldn’t wait to check this one out of the library.

Aside from being struck by the irony of the book arriving in a plastic jacket when the publisher had taken pains to remove the plastic from the cover paper, this was pretty much what I’d hoped for; a realistic account of how you can go about removing single-use plastic from your home.

The book begins by recounting the history of plastic and in further irony, how it was initially develloped to help preserve animal life. With tortoise-shell buttons and ivory billiard balls being replaced by plastic equivalents, a lot of the early innovators in the field had conservation in mind. I found this especially heartbreaking – I don’t know if it’s just me but the idea of the substance being twisted by greed to the point where it’s choking the oceans really hit home and strengthened my resolve to remove more single-use plastics from my life.

I also found the following passage incredibly sad, and true, and moving:

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After having discussed what plastic was supposed to be vs. what it became, Siegle examines what we can do about it.

Initially, she encourages people to examine what they’re disposing of through keeping a diary of items which enter their bin. After which, it’s easier to identify what is/isn’t avoidable.

What I liked most was that she discussed something which has been on my mind for a long while – the aesthetic of low/zero waste on platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram in contrast with what this concept actually looked like in peoples’ homes. It’s often a difficult thing to covet beautiful wooden surfaces, stainless steel bottles and bamboo cutlery when what you’re living with is aging formica, a ‘disposable’ plastic bottle from six months ago (which you really will get round to replacing with a ‘proper’ reusable one soon) and some plastic cutlery you got from a visit to Pret. The interesting part here being that whilst the former list of things looks pretty, it’s probably more wasteful at this point in time because these items have been specifically created – thus using energy and resources – whilst the latter existed anyway and you’re saving them from landfill…

This touched on what’s probably been the hardest part of reducing plastic for me – the stationary nature of the ‘journey’. It can appear that nothing changes, when in fact, simply by this fact alone, everything has changed. By keeping our possessions the same – by preserving what’s there already instead of dizzily consuming more – we’re changing everything – we’re suddenly part of the solution.

I learned a lot of things reading this – particularly about how important it is to know what you can and can’t recycle and why recycling isn’t a solution, rather than a stop-gap.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking to reduce the amount of plastic waste in their life.

Other than this and ‘To Die For’, what are your favourite books about the environment? Recommend them here, or on Twitter. ❤