Penguins, Paua and Plastic – New Zealand’s Plastic Problem

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One of the bags of plastic rubbish that we filled on the wild, windswept beach on Mana Island.  Collectively our plastic consumption is a huge problem that needs urgent action.

I don’t know about you but I am on a journey to a more sustainable and plastic free future.  Encouraged by my kids I started to look around me and I was dismayed at the plastic I found.  We are hearing much more about the problem of plastic these days.  People are talking about banning plastic carry bags, cafes are opting for biodegradable coffee cups, the Queen has decided to ban plastic drinking straws on her estates.  We hear regularly about the effects of plastic in the ocean, and we keep hearing about the great plastic island floating in the Pacific. Children are learning about it at school through things like Enviro Schools, and parents are encouraged to pack plastic free/packaging free lunchboxes. At the same time we (as a country) are grappling with how to recycle the plastic we consume – particularly now that China has decided not to continue taking all our recycling.

We kiwi’s get through a lot of plastic each year.  Take single use plastic carry bags as an example. Did you know that it is estimated that we get through a staggering 1.29 billion single use plastic bags every year?  New World and Countdown have both announced that they are going plastic bag free.  Pak’n Save already charges for bags.  Our local New World has started stocking reusable produce bags recently.  But this is really only the very beginning, because plastic is everywhere.  Supermarket bags are only the tip of the iceberg.

When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean everywhere.  When I started this journey to reduce my plastic consumption over a year ago, I knew there was a lot of plastic coming into our house each time I went grocery shopping, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to avoid it, even for a short time.  I challenge you to take a minute next time you are in the supermarket and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that are completely plastic free.  It’s hard, even things where plastic packaging is completely unjustified are swathed in it.  The cucumbers are in plastic wrap.  Lettuces and spring onions come in plastic bags.  At the bulk bins there are plastic zip-lock bags.    We put our produce into single use plastic produce bags.  Even glass jars with metal lids are likely to contain a plastic lid lining or seal of some kind.  Tins are often lined with plastic.  Toothpaste may come in a cardboard box, but it is still in a plastic tube with a plastic lid.  Many cardboard packets contain hidden plastic trays or bags.  The list just goes on and on. Fruit comes in plastic bags or hard plastic punnets.  I emailed Yummy to ask if the stickers on their fruit are biodegradable. They replied that they are not.

Actually the plastic problem affects much more than the supermarket bought items coming into you home.  Clothing is also often made from synthetic fabrics that lose plastic microfibers into our rivers and oceans every time you wash them.   Oceanic plastic pollution is beginning to affect the food chain too.  Many of the fish we eat have consumed plastic. It affects fish in New Zealand waters. Studies have even found it in dried fish.   Alarmingly, zooplankton have been filmed eating plastic micro fibers.  Next time you look at your plastic dish brush and decide it is looking worse for wear with broken bristles.  Have you ever thought where the fragments of those broken plastic bristles have gone?  The answer is straight down the drain and anything fine enough to pass the treatment plant, goes straight into our waterways and ultimately the ocean.   Try a plastic free alternative next time you replace your dish brush.

Often plastic is used for no obvious reason, for example, the other day I purchased some free range chicken at my local New World.  It came in a plastic tray, and was covered with plastic cling film.  Air tight and water tight, there was no chance of stray meat juice escaping from this packaging.  When I got it home I was frustrated to discover that once the cling film was removed there was another heat sealed plastic film covering the tray.  It was perfectly intact, airtight and leak proof.  Why two layers of plastic?  Here’s another example.    Earlier this year I bought a pack of two erasers. They came on a cardboard backing enclosed in plastic like batteries do.  Inside were two individually plastic-wrapped erasers.  I have no clue why erasers have to be double packed in two separate plastic layers.  Perhaps it should also have come with a plastic sticker on the package saying “sealed for your protection”!  Things like this (and non-biodegradable stickers of fruit) make me really angry.  We just don’t need this kind of plastic packaging, but it is very hard to avoid.   I don’t think many people are thinking about the sea or the food chain when they become unwitting consumers of plastic as they feed their families. For most people the plastic problem is out of sight – out of mind. Some times you need a jolt to bring you up short and help you to face reality.  For us that jolt was Mana Island.

Last month we were privileged to be able to take our two youngest children on a Kiwi Conservation Club trip to Mana Island.  This science reserve is not open to the public, you have to be a volunteer or work on the Island to visit.  It was a really wonderful trip.  There were about 17 enthusiastic kids and about 15 parents all heading out on the boat to learn and contribute our time and energy.  Our work for the morning was a beach clean-up.  Looking at the beach when we arrived I saw lots of paua shells, sea weed, driftwood, and the grey rounded beach stones and sand that you expect on beaches around Wellington.  I didn’t see any obvious sign of litter or plastic.  It just looked like a wild, windswept, empty, clean beach – but I wasn’t looking closely.  We walked back to the ranger station with DOC Rangers Otis and Caitlin who pointed out penguin tunnels and tracks criss-crossing the vegetation.  Then the group was divided into older and younger kids and the older kids went off to track down takahe inland with the Rangers.

The younger kids broke into two groups with two huge sacks each.  One group headed south, and our group headed north.  I was a bit skeptical about how much we would find on that beach, since it seemed pretty pristine when we arrived.  I wondered how long it would take the children to tire of this activity and start to complain.  Picking things up is not usually an activity that kids are enthusiastic about.  Ask any teacher or parent, and they will tell you that picking up anything causes all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t have to do it!

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Our group beginning the beach clean-up.

But these kids embraced this beach cleaning activity with enthusiasm and gusto.  The parents were just as keen.   We all wandered along the beach eyes down scanning the stones and paua shells for signs of plastic.  It took a few minutes for me to spot my first piece of plastic – a yogurt pottle caught under a bit of driftwood.  It was white and I almost mistook it for a sun-bleached shell.  Then, suddenly everyone seemed to be finding things.  The kids made friends while they searched, imaginatively using sticks as ‘plastic detectors’. The sacks rapidly filled with a huge assortment of plastic.  Chocolate bar wrappers, old shoes, a dolls leg, fishing line, sunglasses, plastic rope, water bottles, pump bottle lids, milk bottle lids, soft drink bottles, water bottles, ice-cream containers, margarine containers, meat trays, cigarette lighters, felt pens, plant pots, straws, McDonalds ice-cream sundae cups, single use takeaway sauce containers, cable ties, plastic farm animals, plastic strapping, bubble wrap, cling film, a toothpaste tube, fragments of plastic so brittle it broke apart in your fingers, and so many yogurt pots I lost count.  We found a huge piece of plastic about a meter across that was branded with the name Talley’s.  This long list is only a fraction of what we found.  Nameless bits of plastic that couldn’t be identified were everywhere.  This plastic litter was concealed between beach stones, under driftwood, and caught under low beach scrub where the wind and waves had tossed it.  Those penguin tracks we saw when we arrived often contained windblown plastic flotsam and jetsam.  I have never been so ashamed of my plastic consumption as I was on that beach.  After just one hour we had filled our sacks full to the brim with plastic.  If it is hard for us (who know what plastic is) to spot plastic on what seems to be an ordinary beach, how can we expect birds and fish to avoid it?

It was an eye opener.  My kids enjoyed every minute of it.  It felt good to be picking it up, like we were undoing just a little bit of the damage we have caused with our plastic consumption. My bird crazy 7 year old said wistfully that she wished we could have walked around the whole Island and “cleaned all of the beach”, not just a little section. My 5 year old son insists that we pick up the plastic he sees on the way home from school each day.  In a 15 minute walk from my house to the school I can easily pick up a supermarket bag of plastic rubbish.  I do this regularly.  On Mana Island the rubbish floated there, but around our towns it gets there because people drop it, sometimes within sight of a rubbish bin.

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The final rubbish collection. Far more than I dreamed we would find.  If we can collect this on a small section of beach in a little over an hour, imagine how big the plastic problem really is.

I am so frustrated by needless plastic packaging. I have very little say over whether I get it or not, most of the time it is close to impossible to find an alternative in the mainstream shops.  I’m also frustrated by how hard it is to find plastic-free alternatives to things like toothbrushes when I’m in the supermarket.

We have to do something!  We have to do it fast too.  Our clothes, our shoes, our food, our kids toys, our bags, our dish brushes, our straws, actually our whole lives are now enveloped in plastic.  But you can make changes.  Repair, reuse, reduce, recycle.  Say no to plastic.  If every one of you who read this blog contacted a company who is using needless single use plastic and let them know you aren’t happy, or contacted a company to ask if they have considered an alternative to plastic packaging, then together we could let these companies know that we want change.  They won’t change unless you and I – the customers – demand it. Every action (no matter how small) has real power to effect change.   Look for alternatives, let companies know you want change, and for the sake of our environment, pick up any plastic you see, before it ends up on a beach like the one on Mana Island.

 

Tread Lightly – Shoes with a small footprint

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Steps on the ethical footwear journey.  Allbirds merino shoes on the left, Po-Zu Fairtrade sneakers on the right.

How often do you think about shoes?  Shoes are often overlooked when it comes to ethical clothing choices.  Unfortunately they are not readily recycled at the end of their life and so they usually end up in the landfill.  Many shoes that are available (and affordable) are made from non-biodegradable materials that will linger for many years (perhaps even thousands or tens of thousands of years), leaching toxic chemicals into the environment as they decompose.  What’s more we’ve all heard the horror stories of the treatment of workers in shoe factories around the impoverished “developing world”.  How can we ask those workers to care about the environment when they can’t even afford to care for themselves and their families?

It turns out that ethical footwear is pretty expensive and hard to find when you are in a hurry to replace a much loved shoe that’s fallen to bits.  We humans have been making shoes a long time.  People were making sage brush sandals ~10,000 years ago in Oregon!  Leather has been used to make shoes for 5500 years.  Things have certainly changed a fair bit in the shoe department.  This is particularly true since the rise of plastics and synthetic materials.

Several years ago we began to wonder how ethical our shoes were.  At the time our eldest was heavily influenced by her peers and wanted a pair of Nikes.  We had seen articles in the news about the treatment of Nike workers.  I was reluctant to purchase Nikes because I didn’t want to support a company that didn’t value human rights.  Our daughter was horrified when we found a few age appropriate videos on YouTube for her.  She wanted nothing to do with Nike.  We opted for  Mizunos  which are a more ethical alternative, and she was happy with them instead of the ever popular Nikes. Given the time pressure, the price we could afford and what was locally available in a hurry we think it was a good compromise.  Even better, it sparked a lot of discussion around the dinner table about what brands were ethical and what ones weren’t.  That was the beginning of the shoe journey.

What is the environmental impact of the shoes you wear?  How often do you stop to consider it?  Many people I have talked to seem to think that the only environmental impact of their shoes comes at the end of their life, but in actual fact that is only part of the impact.   In general, sports shoes for example comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials.  A single sports shoe can contain 65 discrete parts that require 360 processing steps for assembly.  Using life cycle assessment methodology the carbon footprint for a typical pair of running shoes made from synthetic materials is estimated to be approximately 14kg CO2-equivalent.  The bulk of carbon emissions for a shoe is found in processing materials, and the manufacturing process.  Unlike many other consumables they are not energy intensive to use or maintain (which is the opposite of electronics for example).

If your shoes are made in New Zealand then the electricity used to power the manufacturing process is largely renewable.  But if it comes from China then coal is the dominant source of electricity and is also likely used to produce steam for other processes in the factory as well.  China is making strides in adopting greener energy alternatives but the majority of its electricity is still from unsustainable and polluting forms of power generation. This is an important consideration when trying to purchase ethical footwear, and it is one that is not easy to assess when you are in the shoe shop!

There are practical steps you can take, like buying quality shoes that have a longer lifespan, and only buying what you actually need.  You can repair your shoes too, I wrote a blog about repairing  jandals with a soldering iron.  Ultimately however, they wear out and you are likely to be left with a bulky piece of synthetic foam, imitation leather and vinyl, or a plastic sole to bury somewhere for the next 10,000 years.

When considering leather, there is more  than meets the eye.  Obviously leather is not an option if you are particularly bothered by animal welfare.  If you are comfortable using leather products, then you might want to consider where your leather is manufactured, under what laws, and if it is tanned using chromium or vegetable tanning processes.

NZ has a large leather industry (something I never knew anything about).  Workers are covered by our labour laws and there are environmental controls in place.  Overseas it is often a very different story.  The leather industry in places such as China, Bangladesh and India for example, is hazardous to both the environment and the people who work in the factories.  Leather is often produced in areas without strong environmental protection laws.  The primary cause of environmental damages from the leather industry is from the dumping of waste products (both solid and liquid) that contain chromium and other hazardous compounds.

While I understand why some people choose to avoid leather (or any animal products) out of concern for animal welfare, I am very wary of a so called “animal friendly” shoes that are instead made from synthetic materials and plastic soles.  It is all very well to refuse to use animal products, opting instead for a product that is impossible to recycle, will be consigned to landfill to leach toxins into the environment, and cause harm to the very animals you are trying to help.  They can’t drink from contaminated waterways, and they can’t eat fragmented remains of plastic shoes as they float in the ocean.  If you are concerned about animal welfare then you need to look more widely than whether or not the product came from an animal.  Instead you also need to consider the impacts of the production of synthetic alternatives on the environment and wildlife as well.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide a starting point for you to make a step in the direction of more sustainable and ethical footwear choices.

McKinleys

We have been buying McKinleys for our kids for years.  All three have had them and all of them have been unable to wear them out.  In fact, our eldest (long ago) hit on the bright idea to try scuffing holes in them so we would buy her a new pair.  She tried for a long time but gave up in the end because she was able to make them look worn, but not wear them out.

They come in two main styles for children (although they do a separate range of black school shoes and sandals). Style one is a pull on boot with an elastic gusset.  The second is an old style T-bar sandal.

Pros:

  • Available in a rainbow of colours, (red, blue, orange, bronze, green, pink…..etc).
  • Modest range of styles for adults.
  • Made in Dunedin NZ, under NZ labour laws protecting workers rights.
  • The leather for McKinley’s is sourced from Tasman Leather, a New Zealand owned tannery in Whanganui, using New Zealand hides, subject to NZ environmental and animal welfare protections.
  • Our kids shoes are usually $89-$99 but the last pair cost $65 because they were the last in a discontinued colour line.
  • Very durable.

Cons:

  • Soles are PVC or nitrile rubber, which is the only area of concern for me.
  • Our only issue so far has been that the buckles on a couple of shoes have not lasted. Both were able to be cheaply mended by the local shoe repairer.

Etiko

My husband decided to try these after becoming frustrated with cheap Warehouse shoes.  He is very hard on shoes, and so any shoe is in for a battering if he is wearing them.

Pros:

  • Amazingly comfortable casual shoes to wear.
  • Looked fantastic.
  • They are 100% biodegradable and sustainable
  • The sole was much better quality than equivalent Warehouse casuals.

Cons:

  • These shoes were terribly short lived. They had torn across back between sole and upper after only 3 months, of regular wear, which was very disappointing. The quality of the manufacturing seemed to let these shoes down.

Allbirds

My husband and I both have pairs of Allbirds.  We initially thought these looked like a great ethical choice but subsequent research has shown that there are issues with these shoes in terms of their soles and part of the lining of the upper. We were excited by the idea of a wool shoe.

Pros:

  • Super warm and comfy.
  • Ethical B-corp manufacturing.
  • Sustainable insole and part of upper.
  • Reasonable price.
  • They last better than you would expect a woollen shoe to last.
  • Fine for flat unchallenging surfaces.
  • They are definitely machine washable.

Cons:

  • Very slippery on some wet surfaces.
  • Undisclosed nylon in upper.
  • Soles are standard EVA and non-biodegradable.
  • My husband’s Allbirds haven’t held their shape. They now resemble booties! Mine are still fine despite a lot of wear.
  • The upper lacks enough support. Because the upper is stretchy my feet slide forward walking downhill and it’s actually downright weird on unevenly sloped surfaces and my feet slide sideways over the edge of the sole on steep terrain.
  • Not suitable as a running shoe despite advertising.

Po-Zu

My husband decided to try out this brand after seeing international reviews.  He got a semi casual pair for work.

Pros:

  • Vegan and chrome free leather options available.
  • 100% biodegradable, sustainable.
  • Fair trade.
  • Beautiful manufacturing quality.
  • After several months of regular wear they look barely used.
  • Warm and comfortable.
  • Good looking.

Cons:

  • Higher price, not available in NZ so difficult to get correct sizing.

 

Brooks

My husband decided to try these after his last running shoes wore out. This brand is the only proper sports shoe with ethical credentials that we could find.

Pros:

  • Huge commitment from company to living wages,
  • Ethical supply chain management
  • Real commitment to improving their environmental standards.
  • Biodegradable soles which make up the bulk of shoe.
  • Recycled content in upper.

Cons:

  • Shoes are still petro-chemical based and the upper is not biodegradable or recyclable.

I am choosing to make my choices count.  I support buying local NZ made where possible.  I always check the label to see where the shoes are made.  No matter how nice, if it is made in China for example I won’t buy it (unless it has exceptional accreditations to help me make an informed choice). I try to consider the end of life of the shoe too.  I don’t want something that is going to end up in landfill.  If it can be composted or recycled then that is a huge plus for me. I acknowledge how hard it can be to make these choices when you are urgently trying to replace your children’s shoes, but every choice you make has a flow on effect.  Even avoiding cheap synthetic shoes from China is a good place to start.

I believe we can transform the world with our choices.  Even making the effort to avoid a pair of shoes that is not ethically made in favour of a shoe with better ethical standards is a step in the right direction.

Grandma’s tips to save the world!

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Wholesome plastic free goodness!  The cheese dish my grandparents used every day to store their cheese and a preserving jar full of ‘stretched’ butter,  served on the folding tray that Grandpa made.

Our family is on a bit of a journey to try and make more environmentally friendly and socially responsible choices.  One of the big things we are trying to do is to reduce our plastic consumption.  These days plastic is absolutely everywhere. I think we have all got so used to plastic that we are blinded to how much of it there is.  Seventy or eighty years ago things were very different.  My Grandma brought up her family in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Mum remembers when her father brought home their first plastic cups.  He threw them all on the kitchen floor to see what reaction he would get when they bounced instead of shattered.  Plastic was ‘new-fangled’ and Grandma didn’t have much of it, yet she managed just fine without the plastic we have become accustomed to.  So what were her tricks?

Tips from my Grandma’s kitchen!

Use a container.  Grandma had tins and jars.  A container and a lid removes the need for cling film or zip lock bags.  Choose to reuse a yogurt container and lid or ice-cream container rather than put them out straight away with the recycling.  Label with a vivid!  Or use a glass jar with a screw on lid.

Put a plate over the top of a bowl, or use two plates.  Put food on one plate and cover with another, brilliant!  Food stored this way is stackable.

You can use a tea towel or a piece of fabric and a large rubber band.  Fabric used in this way can be washed and reused.  Food covered this way breathes so you don’t end up with damp or slimy food.  Cheese used to go hard when stored this way (but remained usable), nowadays cheese in plastic goes slimy or mouldy.

Cellophane, a rubber band and a jam jar works well too.  In fact at craft fairs you can find homemade jams and chutneys with cellophane lids that are airtight!

Grandma didn’t have plastic straws around the house. Instead, occasionally as a treat they had waxed paper straws.  My mum remembers these from when she was a little girl.  They were seen as a treat.  We now have a supply of paper straws in our kitchen.  A more recent alternative to paper straws is re-usable metal straws. We have a few of these and we love them.

Lunch paper can be used to wrap sandwiches.  Grandma used grease-proof paper to wrap sandwiches. My Mum wrapped my school lunches with lunch paper.  It worked fine then and it’s still fine now.  Used lunch paper can go in the backyard compost heap at the end of its life.

My Grandparents had a large vegetable garden and grew a lot of their own fruit. I don’t know if it fed them completely or if they had to supplement it but it was just how people did things back then.  Vegetables and fruit these days often come pre-packaged with moulded plastic trays and plastic bags, or even shrink wrap.  If you grow your own vegetables and fruit, then they don’t come in plastic packaging. Just pick fresh from the garden. Not everyone has the room for a vegetable garden (we certainly don’t), but you would be surprised how much you can grow in fish bins and pots.

In Grandma’s day they didn’t use plastic bin liners.  In our house we have abandoned bin liners altogether.  Every couple of weeks, we simply wash the bins out with hot soapy water.  If you can’t face life without a bin liner, then choose eco-brands that are compostable.

There were no plastic supermarket bags in grandma’s day.  Baskets, paper bags and reusable bags must have been the norm.  Most people are catching on to reusable carry bags, and increasingly you can get re-usable produce and bulk bin bags.  I have a little collection and very rarely need to use the plastic bags supplied in the supermarket.

Dish brushes and cleaning clothes weren’t made from plastic in Grandma’s kitchen in the 1940’s.  In a previous blog I talked about using alternatives to plastic dish brushes.  This is a surprisingly easy switch to make.

Think mindfully about food.  In my Grandma’s day, she didn’t have a fridge.  Instead she had a food safe to keep food cool and protected from flies.  I suspect that she was more aware of how fast food would perish and used food quickly before it began to spoil.  She made smaller amounts of food so she didn’t have to worry about storing the left overs.  This is a great way to reduce food waste.

Try ‘stretching’ butter.  My Grandma brought up her family during WW2 and wartime rationing.  She never bought spreadable butter in a plastic container.  I have now stopped buying margarine or spreadable butter products because they come in plastic.  A wonderful friend of mine gave me a WW2 era recipe for ‘stretching’ butter while rationing was still in place.  So simple and effective, I wish I had known about this earlier.  Here is the recipe to make 500g of butter into 1kg of stretched butter.

You need: 500g of butter at room temperature, 1 cup cooking oil (whatever type you prefer), and one cup water.

Simple whiz up the butter in a food processor (or with a hand held mixer), till whitish and pale, then add the oil and water half a cup at a time and mix until blended.  Scrape it into a container with a lid and pop it in the fridge.  If you want to stretch the butter further you can add 1.5 cups of water and 1.5 cups of oil.  I prefer the mixture to be slightly firmer and not to melt quickly so I use less oil and water.  I was told that this ‘stretched’ butter is fine for baking but I haven’t actually tried it.  However it does taste great on freshly baked bread, and you never need to deal with a greasy plastic container again!

There are other things you can do too.

You can try to avoid convenience foods.  This is hard to do and believe me I still struggle with this one.  But more and more I am considering my purchases and choosing to avoid buying things that come in disposable plastic packaging.  Or better still try making your own convenience foods; muffins, crackers, bread or biscuits taste better if they are home made.

Tinfoil can be used in almost exactly the same way as cling film AND it can be recycled!  One person I have spoken too prefers cling film because she can see what’s in a container.  An easy way around that issue is to have a permanent marker and simply write on the tinfoil. While it is energy intensive to manufacture it is reusable (if you take care of it) and recyclable.  Used tinfoil isn’t clogging up our oceans.

Beeswax wraps might not have been around in the 1940’s but they are an option these days.  They’ve become increasingly popular in the last few years. Check out my blog on these nifty alternatives to cling film.

My Grandma and Grandpa didn’t buy anything they didn’t need, and they didn’t throw out anything they could use.  They grew up in the depression and lived through WW2, times were tough.  They saved string to reuse, they saved wrapping paper to reuse, and Grandpa apparently straightened old nails to reuse.  I think my grandparents would be stunned to see how people take plastic for granted.  Thinking about Grandma’s kitchen I can’t work out why we even need it.  If she could manage to bring up a family without plastic during a war, I am certain I can do it today. Challenge yourself to make a few small changes and you will be surprised how easy it is.

Get SUST with beeswax wraps! Ditch cling film and change the world!

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Cling film annihilation kit ready for action.

Cling film has been a staple feature of just about every kitchen for years.  It’s so quick, so convenient, so useful, so effective.  What would we do without it?  A hundred years ago in my great grandma’s kitchen they had never heard of it and it would be years before it arrived to make life in the kitchen easier.   My great grandma managed just fine without it so why can’t I?  Challenged by this fact I finally abandoned cling film (Glad Wrap) in my kitchen about a year ago.  There are so many alternatives, that replacing it was surprisingly easy.  Most recently I tried and liked some beeswax wraps, so I decided to try making my own.  So here is one way to replace cling film and all you need to know to make your own beeswax wraps.

I researched the history of cling film and was startled to discover it was invented back in the 1930’s. But I don’t think it arrived in household kitchens till the 1950’s.   Sadly our concern about it is a much more recent thing.  As a result the environment and the animals we share this planet with are drowning in an accumulation of forgotten plastic, including cling film.

Cling film is one of those things you use, throw away and never think about again.  What happens when it’s finished with?  It is often seen blowing around school playgrounds.  I’ve fished it out of the Hutt River and I picked up shreds of it on a beach in the Coromandel this year.  Last time I visited the rubbish dump I saw it caught in the bushes lining the road to the dump.  I’ve read about how it has been found in the stomach contents of dead albatross chicks and how sea turtles think it is jelly fish.   Adult sea birds often mistake floating plastic for fish and they feed it to their chicks not realising that it isn’t fish.  A tummy full of fish helps a chick to grow, but a tummy full of plastic is a death warrant.  We are hearing much more these days about the problems associated with single use plastic and how devastating it is for our oceans.  I read with increasing alarm and shame that we are heading for a future where there will be will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

There are many ways to replace single use plastics in your kitchen. I’ll be looking at this more in my next blog post.

Make your own beeswax wraps!                      

Beeswax wraps.  These have become increasingly popular in the last few years, but according to good old google, people have been waxing fabric since ancient times.  The benefit of beeswax wraps are that they are made from simple “good” ingredients.  These nifty wraps mimic most of the properties of cling film and are compostable.  Even better, an old beeswax wrap can be cut into strips and made into fire starters (you can even buy wrap off-cuts for this purpose).

Because I was trying to find alternatives to single use plastic, I was very curious to give them a whirl.  Last October I decided to get a couple of small Munch beeswax wraps and see what I thought of them.  I was pleasantly surprised.  They smell wonderful, and they really do seem to work well.  Unfortunately they are expensive (at least initially) and I wasn’t able to afford any larger ones.  I had some difficulty getting them to stay properly on the cut end of a cucumber, but a rubber band sorted that out.  They stay on most bowls alright.  Sometimes they need to be pressed on again with warm hands after a day or so.  I’ve had no problems washing them, and they make a packed lunch a visual treat!

I really wanted to get a couple of larger ones since we often need to cover larger containers but the expense put me off.  Then I discovered Pure Nature.

This amazing company sells everything you need (except the fabric) to make your own.  This is where I purchased the beeswax, pine rosin, and jojoba oil to make mine.  It’s pretty good value since I will get another 4 batches of wraps out of the bag of pine rosin, and another two batches of wraps out of the bottle of jojoba oil. The 100gms of beeswax was used up on one batch of wraps.  Making my own was a cheaper option for me than buying ready-made wraps.  I ended up with 5 large (30x30cm), 2 medium (20x20cm), and 2 small (15x15cm) sized wraps.  I love being creative so making my own was great fun, and really simple.

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Cutting the fabric to size.

Here’s how to make your own.

You’ll need to get some cotton fabric or dig into your fabric stash if you have one.  Natural fabrics (cotton or hemp) are best (but not wool).  I pre-washed my fabric and then cut to size with pinking shears.

You’ll need an old pot and an old bowl (to use as a double boiler), tin foil, a paint brush (a thicker one so you can brush the mixture on quickly), and a set of scales.

Ingredients: 20g pine rosin, 3 tablespoons jojoba oil, and 100g beeswax.  Jojoba oil is used for its anti-microbial properties.  Pine rosin is used to achieve a slightly tacky texture and helps the wrap to more closely mimic the properties of cling film.

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Wrap making in action.  Brushing the mixture on with a brush.
  1. Cut fabric to size.
  2. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
  3. Use a mortar and pestle to crush the pine rosin.
  4. Put beeswax, crushed rosin and jojoba oil in the bowl.
  5. Melt together over double boiler. Stir to mix.
  6. Put a sheet of tin foil on a baking tray and lay a fabric square on it.
  7. Brush beeswax onto the fabric quickly, making sure to cover evenly and try to avoid pools. It will start to set very quickly.
  8. Place tray in oven for 3 minutes to allow the fabric to absorb the beeswax.
  9. Remove and check that there are no bare spots and that the wax is evenly distributed.
  10. Hang to dry.
  11. Start using.
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The finished product!  Nine new beeswax wraps.

Wash with cool soapy water and hang to dry.  Avoid heat, and don’t use to wrap raw meats or fish.

Simple and fun.

The question I keep asking myself regarding single use plastic like cling film is whether I really need it. Is a moment of perceived convenience worth the cost to our environment and the animals that share it with us?  We throw it away when we finish with it, but where is away?  As David Attenborough says “There is no ‘away’ because plastic is so permanent and indestructible.  When you cast it in the ocean…it does not go away”.  It doesn’t go ‘away’ when it ends up in the landfill either.  I feel the weight of that plastic like a burden.  But each time I use one beeswax wrap I know I am making a small but significant difference, and it is worth it for my children’s future.

Get more mileage out of your jandals with a soldering iron!

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Repaired jandal after successfully discovering the art of jandal soldering!

Kiwis love their jandals.  It wouldn’t be summer without them. Everyone knows the classic Kiwi BBQ;  beer, cricket and jandals. What trip to the beach would be complete without a pair of jandals?  The only footwear for summer!  Us kiwis love our jandals so much that some die-hard fans will wear them everywhere, even tramping through the Himalayas (true story).  Every jandal lover dreads the day the jandal finally gives its last gasp.

With all jandals comes the inevitable frustration when they unexpectedly wear out.  We have all heard of the bread bag tag hack to stop the knobby bit pulling through the sole after a ‘blow out’.  A brilliant bit of ingenuity.  But what happens when the knob comes off altogether?  It’s always been the end of the jandal.  No bread bag tag can fix that!  Almost invariably the break happens at the most inconvenient moment.  You know what I mean, in the middle of the road causing an embarrassing stumble or halfway through a game of backyard cricket causing you to miss an easy catch. The last time it happened to me I was halfway through the walk to school on a baking hot afternoon to collect my kids!

In January we had to buy a new pair of jandals for Miss 14 after the knobby bit parted company with the rest of her jandal strap in Taihape at the start of our summer holiday. We hurriedly searched out a new pair and she was happy again.  A fortnight ago the knobby bit came adrift during an energetic game of poison pole at Youth Group.  Not only was she infuriated to lose the game (she’s very competitive), she was pretty disappointed as the new jandal had lasted barely a month and it wasn’t a budget brand either.

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One broken jandal looking sorry for itself before jandal soldering was attempted.

My husband had watched vinyl layers at work welding the vinyl seams in a hospital fit out.  He got to thinking about the problem.  He got a bee in his bonnet that there must be a way to fix the jandals.  So after some thought he decided to try welding the knobby bit back on to the broken strap with a soldering iron.

First he made sure it was clean and dry with no dirt or sand adhering to the broken surfaces.

Then he simply made sure the soldering iron was hot enough to melt the strap, and carefully melted both bits at the same time before pressing the pieces together and holding till the repair cooled.

After a bit of wrestling to get the newly reattached knobby bit back through the hole in the sole, hey presto! One fixed jandal ready to go again.  He actually repaired both pairs of Miss 14’s jandals so now she has two trusty pairs of jandals again.

More than a week later the repairs seem to be doing just fine.  It looks like they have plenty of flip flop life in them.

Everywhere you go these days you hear the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle.  There is one thing missing from that list and it is an important one.  Repair.  Repairing broken things is something we have forgotten about in today’s consumer society.  If something breaks you are encouraged to just throw it away and go and enjoy some retail therapy as you buy another one.  In order to be truly sustainable, repairing and fixing is a skill we all need to rediscover.

Of course eventually every jandal will bite the dust permanently and no amount of repair with a bread bag tag or a soldering iron will restore it to its former glory.  When that day finally comes, I’ve found an awesome brand to try out.

Subs is a flip-flop company from New Zealand. Their aim is to prevent and reduce plastic waste by transforming it into high-performance, recycled plastic flip-flops. At the end of their life they can be recycled into new pairs of Subs.

Subs are made of recycled plastic sourced from beach clean-ups & recycling, and they pledge to remove ½ a kg of debris from our ocean ecosystems for every pair sold.

We are just waiting until someone’s jandals finally can’t be fixed so we can try them out and see what they are like.  Seems like it might be a long wait now we have discovered the art of jandal soldering!

Until then, in our house the mantra is “reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair”!

Kid’s backpacks – a burden of responsibility.

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Two very happy children and two ethical backpacks. Cotopaxi bag on the left, and Recycledbag.co backpack on the right.

We have just started a new school year.  The summer holidays are over.  It is back to school with all the fun of buying stationary and the grind of making school lunches.  This year we have had to buy school bags too.  Making an ethical choice in the back to school madness is an interesting journey.

My children are the best part of my life.  They bring so much joy and fun.  When it was just my husband and me on our own we thought about the future, but I don’t think we really felt how important it was until we held our children in our arms and watched them sleep at night.  My children focused me firmly on their future not mine.  My point of perception stretched from the immediate – to far in the future when my children and potentially grandchildren might be struggling to understand why we thought and acted as we do right now in 2018.  There are many paths to this realisation, and not all of them require kids, (that’s just been my personal experience).  But all of them permanently alter your perception of what is truly important.

The people making cheap school backpacks in sweatshops probably feel exactly the same about their children and the future they will inherit, but they are dis-empowered from taking any action because their labour is cheap and there are few laws to protect them.

I don’t want my children to have products that exploit another person.  I’m really bothered by the idea that my child might be wearing a school bag manufactured by workers in a factory who may not able to provide for, or even spend proper time with their own children.  My children feel the same way.

The more I have looked into ethical and eco choices the more aware they are of the reality of what goes on to make their things.  As a result my children are equally bothered by plastic waste, and they are horrified by the idea of people slaving away in factories for a pittance to make the things we end up buying.  They can’t believe (with their childish innocence) that this isn’t easy to fix.  “Why don’t people just say they don’t want plastic”?  “Why don’t people just stop buying things if they are made in sweat shops?  And “why don’t we just ask for the workers to be paid more”?  Why indeed?

In the past we have always been in a rush at the last minute and ended up buying what we could easily get hold of in the local shops.  However, these bags are usually made in China, are most often cheap, and clearly not well made.  These are the bags you usually find in the “back to school” sales.   I’ve never seen an ethical alternative.  The best you can hope for is to buy a bag that is designed to be more durable so it will be a while before it ends up in the landfill.

My little man has just started school.  He wanted an ethical back pack to replace his tiny kindy bag.  Fair enough we thought, he is going to have to fit more in his bag now than lunch and an emergency change of undies.  My 7 year old needed a replacement bag.  She was particularly keen on fair trade backpacks.   And so the search began.

It’s hard to find an affordable fair trade backpack in the local mall, so we didn’t even look.  We simply turned to good old Google.  We found a few option, some Fairtrade, some made from recycled materials.  They are a bit more expensive, but mostly they seem to be made to last. When it comes to ethical choices I think Vivienne Westwood summed it up nicely when she said “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”  This is exactly what we are trying to do.

Mister 5 initially chose a backpack from Patagonia.  He was really excited.  But although we had been impressed by Patagonia’s environmental and social responsibility claims we were sorely disappointed.  They do have outlets in NZ but they don’t necessarily stock the full Patagonia range and they don’t stock this little backpack.  We decided to try buying online from the US but they refused to ship to NZ under any circumstances.  They wouldn’t even ship to a US address if it was coming to NZ.  I don’t know how ethical they really are if a customer in NZ wants to buy an ethical product from them but they won’t allow that to happen.  I am really disappointed and I won’t be buying from them in future not even from their NZ outlets.  A truly ethical company needs to ensure that any person wanting to make an ethical choice is empowered to do so no matter what country they are from.

Following this disappointment my little man considered his options with us and decided to choose a backpack from Recycled bags.co which we purchased through an online shop called The Spotted Door  that specialises in recycled products.  Recycled bags.co is an Australian company making sustainable eco-friendly products from recycled fish feed and cement bags.  Their mission is to bring economic empowerment and a sustainable income to artisans in Cambodia where many people live below the poverty line on less than $1.25 a day.  Mister 5 is particularly anxious to stop plastic ending up in landfill so he was thrilled with this recycled bag.  He also instantly fell in love with the little elephant on the back. All in all, this bag was a super choice.  It has a couple of pockets, two on the outside and one on the inside.  It is the perfect size for him.  He insisted on wearing it for the first time on a family tramp to celebrate Waitangi Day.

Miss 7 looked at a number of options before settling on a Backpack from US company Cotopaxi.  She chose this neat little number in purple and it arrived the same day as Mister 5’s arrived.  It was like Christmas again in our house!  Cotopaxi products are guaranteed to last 61 years – the average lifespan of a person living in the developing world. If something goes wrong they will repair or replace the product, which might be a bit hard for NZ customers but I really like the intention behind it.   Cotopaxi is a public benefit corporation which means it is focused on public good rather than just pure profit.  Each year Cotopaxi provides targeted grants to non-profits, and this can include volunteering at local farms or helping install irrigation pumps in Myanmar. Cotopaxi are committed to helping eradicate poverty. They are also B Corp certified .  And it came with a photograph of the person who made the bag and a handwritten note.

Cost wise the Recycledbag.co pack we got for Mister 5 ended up being $75.00 NZD including postage.  The Cotopaxi pack was $65.00 NZD including postage.  Although much more expensive than a $15 cheapie from the Warehouse or some other budget place, our kids have helped to change the world!  These bags are designed to last, and in the case of Cotopaxi that guarantee should take Miss 7 through to when she is 68 years old!  It is a good sized bag for someone who is 7 years old, but it is still perfectly wearable for me so she should be able to get excellent mileage out of it.  It is designed and intended to last most of her life!

During our search we did find one Kathmandu backpack made from recycled bottles, but it was far too big for a kid’s school bag, and a bit pricey for us too.  But if you are interested it is worth taking a look.

So there is our ethical school bag journey.  We are very happy with the bags our kids chose and so are they.  They are proving a talking point with lots of people, who had no idea there were ethical bag choices out there.  I think it was all worth it.

How to keep your other half happy! Bottle cutting and Karma Cola.

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Before and after up-cycling!

In line with our families desire to step away from consumerism and pointless plastic clutter, we have been looking for ways to up-cycle things.  For some time we have admired various up-cycled bottle ideas.  So with that in mind I got my wonderful husband a glass bottle cutter  off Amazon.  This amazing gadget allows you to cut a glass bottle and turn it into a drinking glass or other interesting knick-knacks.

I don’t know how many other people out there sometimes struggle to get their other halves Christmas or birthday presents.  I can’t be alone.  I’ve heard the stories.  I am lucky to be married to a multi-talented amazing man, who has eclectic and varied interests and often expensive tastes.  He is usually pretty specific about the things he likes and doesn’t like.  He doesn’t like leather slippers for example (I didn’t give him those), he does like expensive woodworking tools (I can’t afford to buy him those).  Every year I field a range of phone calls from people wanting to know what they should get him for Christmas.   Occasionally I do hit the nail on the head.  Last Christmas was one of those times.  I got it right!

For a variety of reasons drinking glasses have a rather short life in our house.  We must be a fumble fingered family, but every month or so another one bites the dust around here.  Cheap Warehouse style drinking glasses last us about a week a glass (no joking).  I have been reduced to eating a specific brand of chocolate hazelnut spread each time a glass was broken because it comes in a glass jar that then works perfectly as a drinking glass.  I assure you that I don’t break drinking glasses on purpose to justify buying the spread…..I would never do that!

In all seriousness, although it tastes SOOOOO good, I am aware hazelnut spread isn’t good for me, and I am also aware that most brands of the stuff contain the dreaded ingredient palm oil.  I am happy to switch to something more sustainable and better for my health.  And thus the bottle cutter looked like a good idea.  We have already switched to avoiding plastic bottles where possible in favour of glass.  Now we can save cool and quirky glass bottles and up-cycle them into drinking glasses. And that is exactly what my husband has been doing.

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We saved a couple of karma cola bottles and he has now turned them into drinking glasses (still with their stickers on).  They look awesome.  My husband has been happily cutting bottles and grinding and sanding the tops to make them smooth.

Karma cola is an amazing company with a social conscience.  They are Fairtrade, and organic, and now their bottles are getting a new life as drinking glasses.  Karma Cola operate principally to benefit the people who grow the cola nuts they use to make their drinks.  It takes social responsibility seriously.  The Karma Cola Foundation has enabled the building of a bridge (for safe transportation), provided scholarships for young children to attend school, supports teachers, built rice processing plants and much more (read more on their website). Karma Cola aims to make sure that the people who grow the cola get something back from the people (like us) who drink it. I love drinking something that does so much good and tastes fantastic too.

So I get to drink Karma Cola, I have a happy husband busy in his man cave being creative, and a new set of glasses in the cupboard!  It’s all win win and loads of fun to boot.  Who would have thought that a dinky little glass cutter would have been such a great idea?

The eco-mundane, plastic free dishwashing!

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Sustainable alternatives to plastic in your kitchen.  From Left: Dishy bottle brush, Wet-it! kitchen cloth, Eco Max dish brush, and Ecostore dish brush.

A year ago I began the task of “de-plasticking” my kitchen.  This is something I’d wanted to do for a long time but hadn’t known where to begin because there is so much plastic in my kitchen.  In the end I started by getting an Ecostore dish brush to replace the bright plastic one that had finally worn out.

Look around the average kitchen and you will be amazed how much plastic you can find. Most measuring cups are plastic, most kitchen cleaning cloths and sponges are synthetic.  There is plastic cling film, there will be a plastic dish brush and more than likely a plastic pot scourer.  Bottle brushes are plastic, there are plastic storage containers, (Tupperware Sistema and more). Many pantry items are wrapped in plastic or come in plastic bottles or containers.  Even cucumbers are wrapped in plastic these days!  There are often nylon cooking tools, maybe even plastic mixing bowls.  And this is only the beginning.  There are so many other plastic items you can add to that list!  What’s important to keep in mind is that any little pieces of these things make their way down the drain and into our oceans.

Now that I look around my kitchen with my eyes opened to the global plastic problem I am horrified and guilt struck that I opted to buy these things in the first place.  I did choose quality plastic products most of the time, which are lasting and haven’t had to be thrown away.  The most environmentally friendly thing I can do is to use them carefully and stretch out their lives to the maximum before putting them out to recycle if I can.  I have opted to not replace any plastic utensil or tool in my kitchen unless it has reached the very end of its life. Thus the first thing I replaced was my red plastic dish brush. I moved it into the laundry to become an all-purpose scrubber for showers, buckets, and garden tools.  In another year or two it will end up in the landfill because it isn’t deemed recyclable.

I chose to replace it with an Ecostore dish brush with a handle and replaceable brush head.  I first ran into these when I worked at the Ministry for the Environment where all the staff kitchens had one.  I was skeptical of how well they would work, but was pleasantly surprised.  Now all these years later, I decided to get one and I was ridiculously pleased with it.  At my husband’s suggestion I oiled it with cooking oil to prevent cracking and started using it.  Interestingly we all found it to be more effective on most cooking remnants that the plastic equivalent.  The softer bristles are more densely packed and do a much better job.  Where it falls down is when something is burned on (of course that hardly ever happens in my kitchen!) or dried on.  The softer bristles don’t do so well then.  I have a much tougher natural bristle potato scrubbing brush that seems to do well for that.  All in all it works fine and lasts OK.

The one problem I’ve had with it is that the handle and the head keep coming apart now after a year of use.  It seems that the ferrule is not strong enough to prevent the brush head rotating or falling out.

I have found this very frustrating.  I am not sure if it is a design flaw or if it is peculiar to this one dish brush.  I have new Ecostore dish brush and handle now, so I’ll be able to see how it performs compared to its predecessor.  I also have an Eco Max dish brush purchased at Commonsense Organics.  This one is made of coconut fibre and seems to be practical.  It doesn’t look to me like it will be prone to coming apart.

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The not so useful Eco Max bottle brushes (left), my old faithful but slightly irritating Ecostore  dish brush with the rotating head (center), an old Ecostore dish head (nearly ready for composting) and my amazing Potato brush!

I have also tried to replace my ancient plastic bottle brush.  This has been more challenging so far.  We bought an Eco Max bottle brush that is made of wire and coconut fibre, but it is much too large to go into most of our bottles.  The more flexible handle is both useful and problematic.  Being able to bend the handle has its uses for odd shaped bottles and hard to reach corners.  But, apply any pressure and the handle bends and any stubborn muck remains hard to remove.  We bought a smaller one in the same brand but it is still too big for most bottles and is considerably shorter so doesn’t reach the bottom of taller bottles and vases.  I really wanted this to work out, but really I don’t think having 3 different sized bottle brushes to cater for all possible bottles makes much sense.  The only thing I would say that they are an OK-ish substitute for dish brushes when the regular one has gone walkabout.  I wouldn’t recommend this brand for bottle brushes unfortunately.

Luckily I recently found a Dishy bottle brush.  Unlike the Eco Max bottle brushes this one isn’t vegan, but it is all natural, biodegradable and contains no plastic. This has been a success as it fits in all bottles in the same way my manky old plastic one did. I love it.

So if you are looking for an alternative to your supermarket bought plastic dish brush, or bottle brush, rejoice!  There are alternatives out there and you can find ones that work perfectly well.  Next time you need to replace your unsustainable plastic dish brush, try a sustainable biodegradable alternative.  They are not hard to find.  I have seen them at Commonsence Organics, Palmers Garden Centre, Moore Wilsons, and online.  They are a great way to start reducing plastic in your kitchen.

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Compostable alternatives to synthetic kitchen cloths.  Top: Wet-it brand (in cute caravan print).  Bottom: The Green Collective brand cloths after two months in my kitchen.  They don’t look too shabby do they?

I have also been slowly replacing my synthetic yellow fluffy supermarket bought kitchen cloths.  I liked them because they hold a lot of fluid and are easy to rinse.  But I don’t like the fact that they are synthetic.  That bothered me a lot.  A few months back we found The Green Collective sustainable kitchen cloths.  They retail for about $8.99 online and I think that is what we paid for them at Moore Wilsons.  They come in lots of snazzy designs and colours.  They are made from 100% natural and renewable materials – cellulose blended with cotton. They are super absorbent and can be composted at the end of their lives.  Mine are lasting much better than I expected.  No real sign of wear and tear even after 2 months.  They are machine washable and I have had no trouble reviving them with Ecostore stain remover in an overnight soak.  I am very happy with them.  Another brand we found a week or two back is Wet-it! which we spotted in Commonsense Organics for $5.

A good friend of mine has another approach.  She cuts up old cotton tee-shirts and uses them as kitchen cloths and cleaning rags.  This is what I grew up with as my Mum used old tee-shirts for kitchen cloths and general purpose cleaning rags.  There is nothing wrong with this approach either, and it certainly is moneysaving.  Old tee-shirts repurposed into cleaning cloths can be composted when they are more hole than rag provided they are cotton (or other biodegradable fibre).  In my laundry I have several of these old tee-shirt cloths for household cleaning jobs.

So there you have it.  A few easy ideas to start reducing the plastic in your kitchen this New Year!  There is never going to be a better time to make a resolution to reduce your household plastic consumption.  Why not commit to reducing plastic in your house in 2018?  It is not hard and it doesn’t have to be expensive.  We owe it to the environment to give it a go and we owe it to our children to change our habits now that we know how big the plastic problem is!

 

The challenge of an ethical Christmas

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Pohutukawa, New Zealand’s most biodegradable Christmas ornament?

As we approach Christmas (yes it is rushing up), our family is considering as a whole how we can be more ethical this Christmas.  I admit that I like a challenge, but this one is a doozy because there are so many things to consider. What is an ethical Christmas?  Perhaps it really is the thought that counts.  How much are you thinking about the person you are giving to, the people who made it and the environment?

Maybe we don’t have to listen to the corporates and big companies who want us to spend, spend, SPEND and never think, unless it is to consider if we should buy just one more thing.  Consumer driven Christmas is all about getting more stuff.  The original message of Christmas is simple.  Love.  When viewed in the light of love it’s not hard to see why stepping back from consumerism makes sense.  How much do you love the environment and the people you share it with?  How much do you love the people who made the things you choose to buy?

Over the last few years I have progressively opted out of the consumer driven Christmas rat race.  I didn’t think about it in so many words, but with hindsight I realise that’s what I had done. It wasn’t hard either.

First, I put a no junk mail sign on the letterbox.  This was driven out of desperation at the volume of junk mail we received in the lead up to Christmas 3 years ago.  The kids would pore over the toy catalogues.  Conversations were driven by what they wanted based on what they saw in the advertising flyers.  I have never looked back. I don’t need a glossy flyer to show me what is fashionable this year.  We have not watched TV in years so the ads on TV don’t get me either.  I am able to consider purchases mindfully.

A year after the no junk mail sign, I discovered the joy of buying online and having your purchases turn up on your doorstep without having to set foot in a Mall!  OK so I did visit our little local Mall for a handful of things, but the bulk of my buying was intentionally done in shops outside of a mall. And this is the important thing – if you are not being  pressured by must have deals, sales, or being tempted to spend up on impulse buys you can make more ethical decisions.  I really recommend these two simple steps to reducing stress around present buying.

In our family we start Christmas with an Advent calendar on the 1st of December.  Not the cheap chocolate advent calendars from the supermarket either! I always avoid those like the plague.  Typically someone succumbs and eats several days up at once, spoiling all the fun. We choose a Christian advent calendar with a nativity scene and little opening windows.

If you aren’t keen on that idea, I recently heard about an Advent Jar, where you put 24 ideas in a jar and draw out one a day.  Simple ideas like baking ginger bread Christmas trees together, making Christmas cards or decorations for the tree, or watching a Christmas movie together.  Depending on how you are pressed you could even get some nice Fairtrade chocolate and put “chocolate” on one or two of the notes if you are finding it hard to think of ideas.  Think of things that will work for you and your family.

On the 6th of December we celebrate St Nicolas day.  More common in European countries, I first encountered this when I was 10 years old while visiting my German cousins.  I never forgot it and as soon as we became parents we started the tradition for our kids.  Each child leaves a clean gumboot outside their bedroom door and in the morning they find a selection of nuts, fruit, a few chocolates, art and craft supplies and one small gift in their boots.  We always lean toward art and craft supplies and encourage our children to use them to create cards and gifts for people.  St Nicolas was a real person who is said to have paid to free children from slavery.  You can’t get much more ethical than freeing people from slavery.  While not for everybody, perhaps you might like to try this tradition too.

When it comes to presents, I have been turning my mind to ethical wrapping alternatives.  I have started using hand embroidered tray cloths and doily’s that I found at a church fair for 10c each.  I might also use new tea towels as well.  This idea allows for more than one gift (for example a book AND a pretty tea towel).  There is no torn paper wrapping to send to landfill!  I have come across a couple of ethical brands selling organic cotton, fair trade tea towels.  If that is too pricey then opt for something cheaper.  Maybe have a hunt through the local Hospice shop, Salvation Army Family Store, or Red Cross and see what you can find.  That way you are reusing an item and supporting a charity as well!  We’ve been using brightly coloured wool as ribbon, and I have begun raiding my accumulated fabric ribbons from gifts and flowers past.  I’ve always found them too pretty to throw out!

Ideas for a more ethical Christmas

  • Make your own Christmas crackers. A neat after school craft activity for the kids perhaps?  A handmade cracker with a personalised gift is better than any throwaway plastic novelty.
  • Find a charity to support as a family this Christmas.  Giving to others is actually good for us and it is a great way to do something for others at Christmas.  One way to do this is to decide on a charity and do something together.  This year our kids filled their own Operation Christmas Child boxes.  My eldest paid for hers herself.  The younger ones chose everything in their boxes and made suggestions, packing and repacking to get it all perfect.  We often wonder how their Christmas children are.  Operation Christmas Child is over for 2017, but you could start filling a shoe box ready for next year.  There are lots of charities to support, e.g. Christmas Box or Shoebox Christmas or your local food bank.
  • Cookies in a jar. Find a recipe for a cake, brownie, or cookies where you can pack the ingredients in a glass jar.  This is something I am going to try this year.
  • Hunt down some NZ made Christmas decorations or make your own using seashells, or little cones. I find these two articles confronting – where decorations are made and Inside Santa’s sweatshop. We will be trying to buy local or socially responsible decorations this year, or we will make our own.
  • Grow your own festive foods like strawberries. I’ve been planting our Christmas lettuce and I have tomatoes, strawberries and a capsicum in pots.  I don’t actually know if they will be ready by Christmas, but I am giving it a go.
  • Get a real tree for Christmas rather than an artificial one or consider a living tree that you can reuse from year to year. If you have a pine allergy you could use some other kind of potted tree (pohutukawa).  In areas where wilding pines are a threat to our native ecosystems look into live trees sourced from wildings.
  • If you have a particular gift in mind for a loved one, search online for an ethical brand. For example if you want to get a bag for someone consider Freeset, Sari Bari, or Loyal.
  • Opt for craft gifts for children that are not plastic such as art supplies, eg beeswax crayons instead of plastic crayons.
  • Choose one or two heirloom quality gifts that will really last (that way they won’t migrate to the rubbish bin in 12 months when they break) instead of lots of cheap ones. The Kilmarnock Toyshop sells beautiful toys crafted by people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Books are a great biodegradable gift, if chosen wisely then it is a gift that will keep on giving. Some of my old books are now favourites with the kids and I hope they will also be able to hand on their favourites to their own children in the future.
  • Give experiences – they are 100% biodegradable! Take your ballet mad daughter to a ballet.  Take a trip to the zoo or a wildlife reserve as a family, go camping or visit the beach for a picnic.  The idea behind this is to buy a bit less for Christmas, and instead treat the family to an experience that would normally be out of reach.  This way you are creating memories that will last a lifetime.
  • Give handmade stuff – not just hand made by you, but also local handmade gifts like unique pottery or art. I know that some of the nicest coffee mugs I own were handmade by local potters.
  • If you have a skill you could consider giving vouchers of your time to someone you think might benefit from it. For example if you are a joiner you could give 10 hours of your time for free.  If you are a photographer you could offer your photography skills.  Perhaps you could offer to teach someone a new skill like knitting, cooking or carpentry.  This way you are sharing knowledge and also giving quality time to a person you care about.
  • Have a go at creative up-cycling ideas!  Just try google for more ideas than you can shake a stick at.

Remember, “ethical” is not just a tag, it is also how long something will last and how much it will be valued and looked after.

In the end it has to be about what you can do yourself, what you can afford, and what is important to you and your family.  What matters most is appreciating those around you, your family, friends, and community, and to do so each and every day of the year and not just simply on Christmas morning.

I wonder if the most ethical thing we can do at Christmas is to opt out of consumerism.  As far as I can tell consumerism is where the unnecessary plastic, cheap labour, and environmental exploitation come into it.  I don’t know how far we will get towards a truly ethical Christmas in our family but in the spirit of the first Christmas 2000 years ago, we will be doing the best we can.

Something to sink your teeth into…..Bamboo toothbrushes and more!

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A selection of the bamboo toothbrushes we have tried.  No complaints at all.

Today I am writing about toothbrushes.  Something we all take completely for granted as an essential item these days.  Apparently 3.6 billion toothbrushes are produced each year (worldwide), almost all of them plastic. Most of those toothbrushes end up in landfill, but many are washing up on beaches. Each toothbrush lasts between 1 and 3 months and is then discarded.  In the course of an average 75 year lifespan you can use and discard between 300-900 toothbrushes (depending on how frequently you replace them).  In our household of five we go through at least 20 toothbrushes a year.  These figures are astonishing.  Recycling options are starting to become available but many people are unaware of this.  I didn’t realise that toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes can be recycled until I noticed a collection point for them at kindergarten.

In researching this post I became curious about the history of the toothbrush that we take so much for granted these days.   When did toothbrushes and tooth brushing become common?

Here is some fascinating information for you.

The Egyptians were making something called “tooth powder” as far back as 5000 years BC.  It apparently consisted of ash from ox hooves, myrrh, eggshell fragments and pumice.  It was likely applied with a finger as there is no record of a tool.

The earliest known actual “device” for cleaning teeth comes from ancient Babylonia between 3500 and 3000 BC, and was called a “chew stick”.  A chew stick is basically just that, a chewed stick with a frayed end that was used to clean teeth.  Different types of aromatic twig were used, presumably to freshen the breath.  Sometimes one end was sharpened into a toothpick.  Chew sticks are still used in parts of Africa today.

The Chinese used chew sticks as well, and it also seems that they developed the earliest actual “brush” around 619-907AD during the Tang Dynasty.  They used boar bristles (!) attached to a bamboo stick or bone.  Writings from 1223 describe monks using horse hairs in a bone handle to clean their teeth.  Chinese toothbrushes were introduced to Europe by travellers and became popular in the 17th century.

One of the earliest accounts of an actual “toothbrush” is found in the autobiography of an Oxford antiquarian (person who studies, collects or sells antiques) called Anthony Wood. He writes that in 1690 he paid a J. Barrett for a toothbrush.

In 1780, William Addis of Clerkenwald, England decided to produce a more modern toothbrush (while he was imprisoned for starting a riot).  He used a bone, drilled some holes, tied bristles (obtained from a guard) into tufts and glued them in the holes!  On his release he began manufacturing his toothbrushes and became wealthy doing it.  He left the business to his son when he died and the business continues to manufacture toothbrushes today (Wisdom Brushes).

Europeans loved the toothbrush and it became the height of fashion to own one during the 1800’s.  During the 1900s, bone handles began to be replaced by celluloid handles.

During WW1 the War Department began enforcing hygiene orders to combat a number of problems caused by men living in close proximity.  A soldier was expected to brush his teeth daily.  By the end of the war daily brushing had become a habit.

In 1938, DuPont Corporation began manufacturing nylon bristle brushes.

The toothbrush we are familiar with became common somewhere between the end of WW2 and today.  I couldn’t find out exactly when the majority of toothbrushes came to have plastic handles, but by the turn of the 21st century moulded plastic handles are the norm.

And that brings us to today’s problem of plastic toothbrushes and the impact they have on the environment.

In the supermarket today you can buy any number of brightly coloured plastic toothbrushes.  Each brand claims to have its own unique attribute essential to dental hygiene, from angled bristles, gum massagers, tongue cleaners, ergonomic handles, electric toothbrushes, vibrating toothbrushes and goodness knows what else.  But all of them are plastic.

I found a plastic toothbrush in the seaweed at the beach earlier this year.  I saw one in the gutter recently.  They don’t all end up at the dump.  Once discarded it is out of sight out of mind.  Yet it will take hundreds of years for them to degrade.  They are here for the long haul whether we like it or not.

That toothbrush in the sand got me wondering.  Surely there must have been something before plastic and if so perhaps there could be alternatives available now.  I sat myself down and googled it.  Guess what?  There are alternatives out there.  Bamboo toothbrushes!   To find an alternative to the plastic status quo you’ll need to visit somewhere like Commonsense Organics, or shop online.  I decided to trial some and see what I thought.  I got bamboo toothbrushes for the family in several different brands.  After a full 6 weeks of using them I can honestly say that they are reasonably priced and perfectly functional.

All the bamboo brushes that I have come across come with soft bristles. This is because (although some people like firmer bristles) soft bristles are recommended by dentists because they don’t damage gums.  All the brands of bamboo brush I have come across make both adult and children’s sizes.

I’ve been using The Humble Brush and I really like it.  It is the only brush that seems to also be socially responsible as well as environmentally friendly (at least as far as I can tell).  Every purchase goes to fund projects for children in need through the Humble Smile Foundation.  My brush was purchased from Commonsense Organics, but they are also available online.

My kids (aged 7 and 4) have been enthusiastically using Mama Bear brushes.  They both love them and are very excited to have ditched another plastic product.  The handles are round and this seemed to be easy to grasp and manipulate.  To be honest I think it is easier for little hands to use these than the bulky plastic junior brushes we were buying.  I am not sure why the handles of the plastic brushes have to be so chunky, but these bamboo brushes seem to be easier all round.  We purchased these online from the Cruelty Free Shop.

My 14 year old daughter tried out the Environmental Toothbrush  (also purchased online from the Cruelty Free Shop) and really likes it.  She prefers the handle to the plastic brushes she was using.  Usually very hard on her toothbrushes, this one has lasted the same length of time or perhaps slightly longer than her old plastic ones.  I think she was taking more care of it because she liked it so much!

My husband has just started using a Go Bamboo toothbrush tonight after finally putting his old plastic one out for recycling (yes you can recycle plastic toothbrushes).  He seemed pretty happy with it.  Another friend of mine has been using this brand for a week or two since I gave it to her to help with a “rubbish free week” challenge.  She is also very positive about it, particularly the soft bristles. These brushes were purchased at Commonsense Organics.

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An up-cycled toothbrush in it’s new life as a plant label.  I found it easy pulling out the bristles with pliers.

Because they still have nylon bristles you have to either pull out the bristles with pliers or break off the head and dispose of the bristles in the rubbish before composting the handle.  I am perfectly happy to do either in order to reduce the amount of plastic I send to landfill each year.  I have decided to up-cycle the bamboo (once it is de-bristled) by using them as plant labels when I grow seeds for our garden.  You can write on the handles with ballpoint or vivid just fine.

So all in all I can’t imagine ever going back to plastic toothbrushes.  The bamboo alternatives are brilliant.  As far as I am concerned I will continue to reduce plastic by sourcing bamboo toothbrushes for my family.

So there you are.  All you need to know about bamboo toothbrushes.  I encourage you to give them a go.