Welcome to the Plastic Free Portal’s first ever guest blog post! I thought you might all be getting bored of listening to me droning on so, I’ve looked around for inspiration from others and I’m pleased to say I’ve definitely found it.
Sarah Allen writes “Rhubarb and Runner Beans” about her and her family of four’s effects to live a more eco friendly life. Like me, she started this journey in January 2017 but has travelled so much further down this road and is down to two wheelie bins a year – two – that’s incredible. Below is Sarah’s account of how they do it, the problems they face and how they try to overcome them. Sarah’s successes feel out of reach for most of us but I’m sure if you read her post, you’ll find there are inspirational tips here that we can all quickly and easily use to help us improve our impact on the planet. It’s certainly given me a boost on my efforts…….
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Create 1 Wheelie Bin of Rubbish per 6 Months, with Kids!
By Sarah Allen
I’ve been significantly reducing the amount of rubbish my family throws in the bin since January 2017 . So much so that in October I set myself the challenge of not putting out the bin to be collected until it was full, hoping to make it to May this year. This date is coming up fast, so how are we doing?
The simple answer is it’s still not full! I reckon there’s a very good chance we will make it to the 6 month mark, meaning 2 wheelie bins a year will be collected from our house, if we can remain the same (or better!).
We are a family of 4 and having children (as I’m sure all eco-minded parents will know) presents its own challenges in a journey to zero-waste. I have been greatly influenced by Bea Johnson who has written the amazing book “Zero Waste Home”. She has a 5 R’s system for dealing with waste which I have slightly adapted and added to. I do the following in this order: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Rot, Recycle, Return.
Refusing is simply saying no to unwanted items coming into your home or your life. I think it is the main ‘R’ in tackling rubbish and this is why it is top of my list. I refuse all sorts of things now, that previously I would have accepted. Simply put, if you don’t need it refuse it!
When it comes to shopping refusing is the front-line in waste reduction, but also where overwhelm can really kick in! There is so much (especially plastic) to refuse! Where do you start? And what does that leave your family to actually be able to eat? I suggest you do this slowly, one item at a time (this is how I kept overwhelm at bay!). As something ran out I considered if there was a better option, concentrating at first on finding the item in recyclable packaging but more recently I have also been looking for plastic-free or unpackaged options. This can involve some shopping around. Often something wrapped in plastic can be bought plastic-free elsewhere, I kept my eyes peeled and soon start spotting options I hadn’t previously seen! One of the main things to refuse here is the unnecessary plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables. I have found it is virtually impossible to buy from my local supermarkets (even loose produce usually has a plastic sticker attached), so increasingly I don’t. I am very lucky to have a brilliant greengrocers in town which on a, roughly, weekly basis (or whenever I’m in town) I stock up on as much as I can carry and that becomes our fruit and vegetables for the week. I mostly buy loose produce and just place them straight into the shopping basket unless I’m buying small items like mushrooms which I put in a produce bag that I made from a net curtain remnant (prior to this I just reused plastic produce bags I already had). I also know of some other fantastic greengrocers in the area and will buy from them whenever I am nearby. I understand this is not the same for everyone but my suggestion is you look for plastic-free options whenever you are out and about and become familiar with what is available to you (there might be more than you think!). When I am shopping on my own, I normally refuse all plastic wrapped fruit and veg. When the kids are with me that can be a different story! Sometimes I will explain that we will get it plastic-free elsewhere or eat it when it’s in season and growing in our allotment but this can seem a bit crazy when your child is asking you to buy them fruit or vegetables; as a parent you want them to eat healthily. So, I will from time to time buy a bag of spinach (which my youngest loves) or a punnet of berries then deal with the packaging further down my list of ‘R’s.
I also buy unpackaged soap and greetings cards and have very recently found two great plastic-free shops one online and one in a nearby town meaning I am now able to buy products such as pasta, rice, lentils, dried fruit etc plastic-free. We refuse plastic straws, single-use coffee cups, plastic shopping bags (even when they are free!), bin liners (I just don’t use any), plastic sticky tape (for our own present wrapping; I use paper tape instead), cling film, most conventional cosmetics and toiletries, tea bags wrapped in and containing plastic and plastic tubs of margarine.
Crisps, sweets, chocolate and cakes are all tricky to refuse when you have kids (and lets be honest for most adults too!). However, when I started looking, there were quite a few options. M&S sells chocolate wrapped in foil and cardboard, Green and Blacks is also plastic-free, so are Smarties and Animal Bars. We have a brilliant pick and mix in our market, with lots of plastic-free options sold in paper bags. Bakeries, including those in supermarkets, normally have lots of cakes sold loose. Often the bags supplied have a plastic window so I have a cloth bag specifically for cakes and I also use it for bread. I haven’t found any plastic-free crisps but have found some alternatives such as pistachios, sold loose at Lidl. I also make my own crisps from potato skins whenever I peel a potato and have the oven on. They are so simple and delicious; just put them on a baking tray with a little oil and salt and cook until crisp. I have found by providing these options, my family are normally happy and don’t even particularly notice that I am cutting down on waste. However, if they particularly want a specific item I don’t insist they can’t have it. This is my decision to reduce rubbish, my family live with me but don’t have to agree with me! I might suggest a plastic-free option to my children or say they can write the item they want on the shopping list (which sometimes they do but more often they don’t). They can also spend their own money on whatever they want (as you and I can!) and are free to accept any gifts of sweets or chocolate that often get given out at school or parties. So some plastic items inevitably come into our home that, I again, deal with using my ‘R’s system.
Simply put, I buy less stuff now than I did! This just came naturally to me as part of reducing rubbish I started thinking about everything I bought and what I would do with the packaging and this just lead me to consider if it was something I even needed to buy. I have personally bought very few clothes and other things for myself in the last 18 months because when I considered whether I needed them I decided I didn’t! This hasn’t made me feel deprived, in fact the opposite! My wardrobe isn’t bulging, I can easily find something to wear and I have more money for other things e.g. I have been on four courses recently to learn interior design, curtain and knicker (yes really!) making.
My children are, once again, free to take part in reducing consumption if they want or to spend any money they have freely. They have pocket money and usually some money for birthday’s and Christmas and in addition, like most children, they are keen to write lists of what gifts they would like to receive on these occasions.
I am very lucky that I receive most of the children’s clothes from friends with older children and also have some friends who pass on their unwanted clothing to me, which leads me nicely on to the next ‘R’:
I have started shopping more and more in charity shops. They are a great place to pick up gifts, clothes, toys and other house-hold items. I am trying to look for second-hand options when we need something instead of buying new. Giving an item a new life makes sense on so many levels. People donate to charity shops, keeping that item out of the bin, charities make money, customers get a bargain and the planet gives out a sigh of relief as resources are not used to make new objects and package them. When you think of how many items there already are in the world, it makes perfect sense to just pass them on to someone else and reuse them for as long as possible.
I have also, one by one, switched most disposable items to reusables. This means I no longer buy tissues, wipes, kitchen roll or dish cloths and instead use hankies, flannels and reusable cloths instead. I was given vintage hankies that belonged to my Nana and made the rest by cutting up a worn-out dress; dish cloths have also been cut from old clothing.
We all have reusable drinks bottles that I take with us when we go out and about so we don’t need to buy water. My husband and I have reusable coffee cups, shopping bags and cutlery. I also carry metal straws and reusable produce bags in my handbag.
I reuse wrapping paper by literally wrapping another present in paper I have received, often securing it by reusing ribbon I already have. Old cards are cut up to make new ones or gift tags. Paper is always used on both sides. Jiffy bags and parcel packaging we receive are used again.
If something is broken I try to fix it. In the past I was quite lazy about this, it’s often easier or cheaper to not bother! Now I see every item as a valuable resource, repair is the next ‘R’. In our house, this is mainly children’s clothing. Hardly a day goes by without a hole appearing in a pair of leggings or a seam ripping! I am using up my stash of thread mending holes but as it runs out I am looking for plastic-free thread. I have found 100% cotton on wooden reels in an antique shop (very cheaply priced) and thread in charity shops (which is sometimes on cardboard reels and is not wrapped in plastic).
We have a repair cafe in our town which runs once a month, this means our DVD player is again usable. I’m sure we will be visiting again with other items in the future. This is an amazing, free resource in which volunteers offer their time and advise in helping fix items. There is even tea and cake while you wait! These are springing up around the UK so it might be worth looking to see if one is near you.
If it can’t be refused, reduced, reused or repaired it may be possible to turn it into compost instead. We put fruit and vegetable peelings, cardboard, paper and garden waste in our compost bin. In return, the worms make compost for our garden so we don’t need to buy the plastic-wrapped garden centre compost! This is then used in our garden to grow vegetables or plant flowers.
Anything unable to be dealt with by the previous ‘Rs’ is recycled if possible. Although recycling is an important option, it uses a lot of energy so it’s best to go through the other ‘Rs’ first. I am very lucky that my council provides great facilities for recycling. I know this isn’t the case for everyone; recycling facilities vary considerably from local council to council and country to country. Knowing exactly what can be put in the recycling collection is really important, so reading the information leaflets, checking online and contacting my council directly has all been really useful. So, for me I can recycle plastic, glass, tins/cans, textiles, shoes, batteries, paper, cardboard, electrical items and foil using the council facilities.
In addition to the kerbside collection I have looked to see if items not collected can be recycled. So I take plastic food bags from things like fruit, bread, frozen peas, cereal bags etc. to Tesco to be recycled with carrier bags (I do try to refuse these as much as possible but currently I do buy plastic-wrapped food for some items difficult to buy plastic-free like frozen peas or when I am within walking distance of a shop and to buy the plastic-free option would require a specific car journey. I avoid this as much as possible by stocking up on the plastic-free option but when life gets busy I have to be realistic and I have to still feed my family!). Plastic film such as the non-stretchy type around products like spinach, the top of ham packets and cheese bags are recyclable at most Sainsbury’s supermarkets, it is worth checking this with your nearest one. It’s also worth mentioning recycling labelling at this point. It isn’t always that useful! Sometimes a product is in a cardboard box, the labelling says the box is recyclable but it doesn’t actually tell you that there is a plastic bag inside. I do the ‘Squeeze Test’! Yes, I do actually give boxes a gentle squeeze listening out for the tell-tale sound of plastic (call me crazy if you like!). The most misleading label, in my opinion, is the one that says “Not Yet Recycled”, this simply means less than 20% of local authorities collect it across the UK, it doesn’t actually mean you can’t recycle it.
I am starting to implement a final ‘R’: Return; I sometimes return non-recyclable packaging. I don’t have a lot of this but sometimes I return it to the shop with a letter explaining why. There is an online campaign encouraging customers to do this called Not Our Plastic Problem if you are interested in joining a community of customers sending back non-recyclable plastic to supermarkets each month.
By doing all this, I end up with very little going in my bin. It might seem like a lot of effort and don’t get me wrong in some respects it is. However, I really think a lot of it is simply changing one habit to another. For example, before the plastic bag levy in England many people forgot or did not have reusable shopping bags. Now it costs 5p a bag many more people use reusables. It may have taken time to remember shopping bags (and I am sure the 5p cost was a massive incentive for many to switch) but this is possibly a habit you have now switched to and you maybe don’t even have to give it much thought any more. This is how I feel with the habits I have changed, they are new habits now and I don’t have to give them much thought.
Are you on a mission to slim your bin? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Alternatively I have a blog, Facebook page, Instagram account and Twitter feed where I write about my adventures in eco-friendly living and respectful parenting sharing my attempts to interact gently with children and the planet.