Eating what we overlook

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I am really excited to have recently had a bit of an epiphany about what we class and edible and why.  I think, like many  people, I have become overly reliant on what is in the shops to guide my fresh food choices.  If it isn’t in the shop then (while I might be aware of it) I might not remember it or think of it when I am trying to choose fresh produce for my family.  If it isn’t there in the shop then I can’t buy it.  I think we are so blinded regarding what we can actually eat that we have can no longer see the possibilities.  For example I tend to forget that many flowers can be eaten and added to salads etc.  Take pineapple sage.  It is super pretty and attracts bees into the garden (and my 9 year old who likes to suck the nectar out of them), but I had never considered how they might be added to a salad to add flavour and a splash of brilliant red colour.

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Nasturtium capers!  I never realised that you could eat the leaves the flowers AND the seeds of these amazing plants.  All the more reason to plant some in your garden. 

I was looking for a relish recipe in one of my favorite recipe books and I noticed that you can pickle nasturtium seeds and use them like capers.  I was immediately curious and decided that a lockdown activity would be to pickle some.  I picked a jar of green nasturtium seeds and following a combination of several recipes I successfully pickled them. They have been maturing in the fridge since the lockdown and are now ready to open and try.   A friend told me they are crisp and crunchy and a bit spicy.  I can’t wait to crack them open the next time we make homemade pizza.

As New Zealand headed into the covid19 pandemic people suddenly started thinking about being more self sufficient as a way of making sure they could feed their families if things got really tough.  Seedlings and seeds were suddenly in demand.  One thing that didn’t occur to so many people is that the food we see and take for granted in the produce aisle is only a very small sample of the produce that is actually out there.  There are so many things that you can eat that you can’t buy in a supermarket or even at a green grocer (if you are lucky enough to have one local to you).  Perhaps an even bigger issue here is that the produce we see is often not the only part of the plant you can eat.

This latter point has come as a bit of a revelation to me as I considered during lockdown how I could provide for my family as we headed into winter AND tried to avoid unnecessary trips to the shop for produce that spoils quickly and can’t be stored in bulk.  This thought process has continued for me as we emerged from lockdown.  There are a lot of things that might be growing in your garden (flowers, herbs, fruits, vegetables and even “weeds”) unnoticed and unappreciated.  Just because you only buy a broccoli head doesn’t mean that is the only edible part of the plant.  When you buy a couple of beetroot tubers, shorn of their leaves and glad-wrapped onto a plastic tray it is easy to forget that the leaves are edible too.  A whole edible part of the plant has been removed and as a result we tend to forget about it and we are unable to make use of those parts in our cooking.  This has caused me to begin looking at the plants in my garden and the produce we eat differently.  I am surprised how much we waste because we forget that it can be eaten!  I hope to inspire you to look differently at your garden and the plants we consume.  So here is some food for thought.

  • People usually grow radishes for the root, but did you also know that you can also eat the green radish seed pods? Pick some to try with a salad.   That isn’t the end either because radish seeds can be used as a spicy sprouting seed, and as a micro-green.
  • Peas can be grown as a winter crop (although ours are off to a slow start) and everyone is familiar with peas in pods and shelling them into bowls.  But did you know that you know that you can also use peas shoots as a salad green, and you can eat the flowers?
  • Nasturtium flowers can be eaten, but so can leaves shoots and seeds (as caper pickles).  I have always loved nasturtiums.  I love the riot of flowers cascading out over paths and climbing over the top of boulders and tree stumps.  The flowers are so bright and vivid that I almost feel they hurt my eyes and are so bright they can’t be actually real.  I always find I am drawn the the intensity of the flowers, and so I always have them in my garden.  I have known for years that you can eat the flowers and I sometime dress up a salad by adding some.  But I didn’t know until this year that you can also eat the young leaves and the seeds as well.  We used the leaves in salad sandwiches during lockdown while we waited for our lettuce seedlings to get big enough to harvest from, and we loved them.
  • Beetroot is another plant that we often forget is about more than the root.  The young leaves can be used as a salad green as well and the leaves in general can be used like silverbeet. So often we think of beetroot as just coming in a tin but it is easy and rewarding to grow (providing you cover them to protect them from hungry birds).
  • When people pick celery they usually discard the leaves.  But celery leaves can be used to flavour soup stocks, and can be chopped into salads as well.  Personally I always use celery leaves when I am making soup stock.
  • Pumpkin is another versatile vegetable that has many more possibilities that the big ripe orange fruit we tend to think of.  For example pumpkin leaves are edible and can be used to wrap food for steaming.  The young shoots and leaves can apparently be steamed and eaten like silverbeet.  Small baby pumpkins can be used like courgettes.  The flowers can be added to salads and the seeds can be saved for next year.
  • Broccoli is an incredible plant with so many possibilities that you won’t see in the supermarket produce aisle.  Broccoli leaves can be used in both salads and stir fries, and they can be used like cabbage.  Broccoli is much more that just the delicious flower heads we usually consume.  If one of your plants goes to seed, you can sprout the seeds and eat them (and you can collect and save the seed for next year).  Even the flowers themselves can be used in salads.  So many more possibilities than you might think!
  • I only learned recently that the leafy green tops of carrots can also be eaten.  According to my investigations they are nutritious and taste of carrots with a parsley overtone.   I gather that they are rather coarse so might benefit from being finely chopped if you are adding them to salads raw.  I think they sound perfect for adding to soups and soup stocks.  The leaves are apparently a rich source of vitamin c (containing more than the root).  Who knew that?  All those years of discarding the tops!  I am going to try this the next time I make soup.
  • I have heard of growing mustard before (as micro-greens) but I hadn’t realised that the mature plant can be eaten as well.  You can eat them as sprouts, micro-greens, and as leafy greens for salads and sandwiches.  Apparently the stems (before they get woody) can be eaten and taste a bit like spicy asparagus.  You can eat the flowers, and finally the seeds can be made into your own whole grain mustard.  You can bet I am going to explore this vegetable further.  I have just planted some out into the garden .  I am watching and waiting impatiently for the seedlings to grow a bit bigger before I start plucking leaves off to taste.
  • Even some things we usually class as weeds can be eaten e.g. dandelion and plantain leaves.  I have to admit that this is an area that I am not very knowledgeable about yet.  I just hadn’t really stopped to think that I might have food plants growing all over the place but that I have been overlooking.

I think my grandparents knew a thing or two about growing produce and surviving through tough times.  They lived through the great depression and two world wars and they raised a family awhile living a more frugal and self sufficient lifestyle.  They always had a variety of well maintained fruit and nut trees, and a productive vegetable garden.  As the years have gone by it seems that many of the subsequent generations have lost a lot of the knowledge our grandparents took for granted.  Growing your own produce and preserving the surplus was normal for them.  They saved seed, bottled, dried, preserved, and pickled away happily while producing a lot of the produce they needed for their growing family.  The art of growing vegetables and fruit has been lost as consumerism has driven a change in how we shop and provide for our families.  Important knowledge (like how much of a plant is edible) has increasingly been lost as well, and the way we buy food in supermarkets limits what you can actually get.

Discovering that nasturtium seeds could be preserved and that the leaves taste amazing in salads and sandwiches was the beginning of a revelation.  I had been blind to how much edible green produce was sitting in my garden.  I didn’t need to worry about how we would provide fresh produce during lockdown, because we had an abundant supply of things we had never considered just sitting in our garden.   For me this feels like the start of an exciting new stage in my gardening journey.  I really hope I inspire you to look again at what you have in your garden.  It is easy to be blinded by what is laid out in the produce aisle, but what they don’t provide is even more exciting.  Don’t be afraid to try something new or to put in a vegetable patch.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Ideas for isolation – more recipes for scarcity

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Hearty homemade soup and overnight bread.  An easy way to stretch your resources and produce simple nourishing food your family will love.  A great way to avoid food wastage and make do with less.

Around the world people are grappling with a new world view.  After nearly 5 weeks in lockdown we in New Zealand are about to emerge slightly from the extreme rules of the level 4 restrictions.  We have learned (and I mean my family personally, but hopefully all of us collectively as well), that things look different from inside our “bubbles”.  Our bubbles have provided an odd sense of perspective that perhaps our busy lives have been lacking.  An enforced slowing of the normally frenetic pace of life.  Things that seemed important (getting to the shops after school, fitting in play dates, birthday parties, and sports practices, buying cloths, or take away coffee), don’t seem as pressing when you are looking at the world from the (hopefully) safe confines of your bubble.  A collective purpose to protect the vulnerable members of our families and communities is more than enough reason to sacrifice our freedom temporarily.   Perhaps you (like us) have had time to discover the joys of being with your kids, having time to play lego, enjoy board games and family jigsaws, have movie nights and snuggle longer  in the mornings.  

This new world of bubbles is definitely not easy, and homeschooling kids is mind bending.  I have taken to educating by stealth – hoping they won’t notice they are learning and studying until they look back later.  Add to that, working from home and it can feel exhausting.  That’s because momentous change is exhausting.  So I reckon its import that we go easy on ourselves and just do what we can.  There is no point in comparing yourself to anyone else.  Their  situation is not the same as yours.

Covid-19 has ushered in a desire in many people to be more self-sufficient and to rediscover the joy of cooking.   Going forward, the traditional ways to feed our families may not be as reliable or easy to access.  As the coronavirus spread, so too did the panic buying – toilet paper, pasta, flour, yeast and even seedlings and seeds.  Obviously people were suddenly visualising a future where greater self-sufficiency might give them greater security.

Because of the abundance of time on our hands, it seems many New Zealanders have suddenly turned to the idea of a home garden.  I think this is a hugely positive step for the population to be taking.  Every person who has pots or a tiny patch of garden can start producing nutritious fresh produce to supplement their families diet.  If you have enough space then you can actually grow pretty much everything you need to eat.  I encourage everybody to take the time to start growing food.  It is good for the soul and good for the body. 

I know that one of the things I have found hardest in lockdown is the need to cook mindfully.  By that I mean rationing butter and other ingredients to make sure they last as long as possible so that our trips to the supermarket are infrequent.   Also making things from scratch takes a bit more planning and time than I have often had in pre-corona times.  Everyone seems at least to be enjoying the meals coming from my kitchen so that is a blessing.

One of our go to dishes for the winter months is a good hearty soup.  I call it elbow soup because the amounts that I put in are estimated by the “feel in my elbow”.  No soup is ever the same twice because I very rarely have the same set of ingredients to hand.  My Grandma used to keep a pot of soup on the stove and throw all her leftovers into it.  She was a renowned soup maker.  She taught my Mum, and Mum taught me.  Now I am teaching my three kids.  This has turned out to be one of our easiest lockdown lunches.  It is flexible and works with whatever I have handy.  What I love about soup is that it gives us the opportunity to change our perception of useless or inedible by turning disparate scraps into a rich new creation.

Every soup I make starts with good stock.  I do buy dried stock powder, but wherever I possibly can, I always make my own.  Vegetable, or chicken stock is my go to soup starter, but you can also use beef stock.  Soup stock is something you can make yourself, it doesn’t need to come in individual plastic containers or in a plastic jar.  A simple way to make a healthy meal for your family also has the added benefit of using food scraps that would otherwise go to waste, and saving you a trip to the shop and potentially the environmental impact of plastic packaging.  I hope you find these recipes simple and useful during the strange times we are living through.

Homemade soup stock:

Next time you have a roast chicken (or any chicken actually), save the bones and boil them up.  Boiling the bones is where the flavour and goodness comes from.  We always boil up the remains of a roast and I will usually get two boilings off one chicken frame.  The first is more meaty than the second boiling and so I tend to add more veges and herbs to the second boiling to bulk it up a bit.  I create a bouquet garni, which consists of a sprig of rosemary, thyme, oregano, half a teaspoon of black pepper corns and maybe a bay leaf.  Sometimes I add parsley, but I am not traditional about this, I just add what I have to hand and what I think will add a nice flavour.  You are supposed to tie them into a muslin bag or tie them together in a bunch, but I just throw them in the pot with the bones (or vegetables) and strain the lot through a sieve when the stock is finished.  I also throw in a roughly chopped clove of garlic and and a slice or two of onion.  Sometimes I put in carrot peelings, celery leaves, and mushroom stalks.  All these things add to the flavour but you can just go with the basic herbs and pepper together with garlic and onion.  Cover the bones with water and bring to the boil before reducing the heat and simmering slowly until the liquid has reduced by about half (or until the flavour is good).  Sieve the stock into a clean container with a lid (discard the bones and bits or if you are going to boil them a second time start over adding fresh herbs and veges etc and repeat), allow to cool and then freeze it.  If you are using the stock immediately to make a soup, then decant it into a large pot and progress with the soup. 

I make vegetable stock by throwing into the pot everything as before (except the bones obviously).  I add more garlic, onion and celery (You can use celery leaves in stock).  Then I add anything that is a vegetable that I have to hand.  Odd bits of pumpkin, celery,  potato and carrot peelings and ends, mushroom stalks etc and boil up as for chicken stock.  

My “elbow”soup recipe:

Once you have your soup stock (instant stock powder or cubes is fine if you haven’t got a homemade stock) you are ready to begin your soup.  I always cast about the bottom of the vegetable bin for old mushrooms, slightly wizened looking carrots (with a bit of life), bits of limp looking cauliflower or broccoli.  In short anything that might be a little past its best that might otherwise be discarded. I put those in first, Chopping into 1cm chunks if I intend to end up with a chunky soup, and throwing in bigger chunks if I intend to mouli, sieve or blend it.  Then I cast around in the fridge for any leftovers and throw those in.  I use leftover rice, stir fry, pasta, pasta bake, spaghetti bolognaise, sausages or chicken.

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I usually put in some or all of the following:

  • tomatoes, (however many feels right to me – but usually between 2 and 8 depending on size and availability.  If I have a half used tin of tomatoes or pasata sauce I will put that in too.
  • a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic.  If I lack garlic I have sometimes used garlic salt.
  • one or two medium potatoes or left over mashed potato
  • bits of bacon (I am always sparing with the bacon and I use it for flavour rather than bulk).
  • a sausage or two.  I either cook them up especially for the soup or use any that are left over from previous meals.  Simply slice them and add.  Frankfurters are good too.
  • a carrot, grated or sliced
  • frozen corn if I have any
  • left over baked beans
  • pearl barley, red or brown lentils
  • left over porridge or a handful of porridge/rolled oats
  • sour cream
  • smoked paprika
  • a teaspoon of mixed herbs
  • some fresh ground black pepper
  • salt to taste
  • celery
  • spring onions,
  • pumpkin or kumara
  • pasta or rice (leftovers get used first to save wastage).
  • chives
  • parsley
  • mushrooms
  • a nice fresh courgette but I don’t use too much and always add near the end of cooking so they retain their colour and flavour.

Once I have finished adding the ingredients, I bring it to the boil stirring to make sure nothing sticks and then I reduce the heat and let it simmer on a low heat for as long as I can stirring every now and again.  I find the longer the better for flavour development. Add extra water if it is getting too thick.  If  the soup is to be moulied check things like lentils are soft and tender and that harder ingredients like carrot and potato are soft. Then I mouli the lot.  Sometimes we like to have noodles in our soup so I add cooked pasta after I have moulied it.  Sometimes I moulie the soup pasta and all.

Taste the soup and adjust the flavours to your taste.  My Mum always says soup tastes better if left overnight but soup isn’t safe in our house for long and so we very rarely have soup left to sample next day!

Overnight bread:

To go with your amazing soup you could try making your own bread.  During lock down, getting hold of flour and yeast has been more difficult that usual.  We have enough but are trying to make our supply stretch for as long as possible.  I was also concerned about friends and family trying to make their flour and yeast stretch the distance so I did some looking and found a recipe for overnight bread.  It is the simplest bread I have made yet.  No knead, no fuss, just simple and delicious.

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You need a casserole dish with a lid ( the deeper the better) or a dutch oven.  If you don’t have something with a lid use a deep oven dish and cover with tin foil instead.  You will also need baking paper.  I have found that I can reuse my baking paper several times before it reaches the end of its life.  

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups of flour (standard white flour nothing fancy)
  • half a teaspoon of active yeast (granules) or one teaspoon of Surebake.
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of water.   I have used both luke warm water and straight cold water from the tap.   I think the warm water is better if it is a really cold night but both work fine

Simply mix the ingredients together in a bowl.  It makes a very sticky dough much wetter than my usual dough.  Sometimes when I am mixing it it seems a bit drier than usual so I add a little bit of extra water (say a tablespoon or two) in little dribbles until all the dry flour is mixed in.

Then cover with a plate and leave on your bench overnight.  I leave mine for between 8 to 12 hours, and on occasion even 24 hours.  It is very forgiving and so far I haven’t noticed any difference in the finished bread.  

Next day after 8 (or more) hours scrape the dough out onto some baking paper that you have sprinkled liberally with flour, and using floured fingers or a spatula shape it into a roughly circular shape.  This doesn’t have to be perfect, just rough. 

Leave for 30 mins to rest.  While the dough is resting, turn your oven on to 220°C and put your casserole or dutch oven or oven dish into the oven to pre-heat. 

When the rest period is over, use a serrated knife to cut a rough cross into the top of the dough, remove the preheated casserole from the oven (carefully because it is super hot) lift the bread dough on the baking paper and drop the whole lot into the casserole, cover with the lid, and place in the oven for 30 mins.

After thirty minutes carefully (it will be VERY hot) remove the lid and return the bread to the oven for a further 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and lift out of the casserole using the baking paper and place on a wire rack to cool.

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Finished!  It just needs to be lifted out to cool on a wire rack.  It smells incredibly good.

It will make a very crusty and super yummy loaf to go with your soup, or to simply enjoy with stretched butterI have no idea how well it keeps because it never lasts our family of 5 for more than one meal!  I do note that it is easier to cut when it is cooled a bit. 

I hope these recipes are helpful and inspire you to try making your own soup and bread.  Let your kids try making their own bread and soup for the family.  This is a skill they will definitely be grateful to have when they are flatting in the future.  In the mean time, look after yourselves, stay safe, and be kind.

Kia kaha (stay strong), this too shall pass.

Sustainable Clothes Pegs – SUST

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A few of my sustainable pegs.  Bamboo spring pegs from Go Bamboo, a single “dolly peg” left over from a craft activity, and my brand new Munch brand stainless steel pegs.

Have you ever considered clothes pegs? They are clever little things, so simple and so useful.  But how sustainable are they?  Clothes pegs are almost entirely made from plastic and are practically all manufactured in China.  I have picked up pegs in some pretty strange places; footpaths, roads, car parks, playgrounds.  But the most disturbing places I have picked them up is on beaches half buried in the sand. And I am talking about relatively isolated beaches.  We even found them on Mana Island during a beach clean-up.  This prompted me to start thinking about sustainable alternatives, and trying to find locally made pegs if I could.

I remember the day it occurred to me to wonder if my old broken plastic pegs could actually be recycled.   I looked at the gravel under my clothesline and noticed the fragments of ancient looking plastic pegs.  Some had simply been dropped and then stepped on.  Some had suffered plastic fatigue and had broken mid-use leaving my clothes hanging oddly, or in a sad heap on the ground below the line.  Others had served me well and probably date back to around 15 years ago, but had become pitted with age, faded, and brittle with extended exposure to the sun.  As I gathered the remnants of my expired pegs I found myself wondering if they should go in the rubbish or the recycling.  I turned to trusty Google and began researching, and then started firing off emails.

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Some of the broken remains of pegs that have reached the end of their lives…..all headed for landfill.

It turns out that while some plastic clothes pegs start out as technically recyclable plastic, extended exposure to UV damages them so that they are no longer recyclable.  I discovered this interesting fact when I tracked down the manufacturer of Sunshine Pegs.  I fired off my questions about how recyclable they are and they responded promptly to explain the effects of UV.

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Bright, colourful and practical. A few of my plastic pegs. On the far left are five NZ made Sunshine pegs.

Clothes pegs are a surprisingly recent invention.  The earliest references to clothes pegs date from around the early 19th century.  Prior to that date washing was apparently draped over a line or hung out over bushes to dry.  This might have been OK in England, but it wouldn’t work at all here in Wellington (the windiest city in the world) on what we would class as a slightly breezy day!  In my grandma’s day back in the 1940’s with a young family, pegs were wooden (and no doubt made right here in New Zealand too).  In fact my grandma managed to make do without plastic at all with three children during WW2 rationing.  Although times have changed and life is different today, I find her example inspirational.  The up-shot is that although plastic pegs are ubiquitous and convenient they are not sustainable and there are alternatives.   Here are just a few that I have found.

Sunshine pegs – NZ made, but not recyclable at end of life.

These bright, colourful, plastic spring pegs are made in New Zealand, so don’t require shipping to our shores with all the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Although technically recyclable when the product is new, this isn’t the case after prolonged exposure to UV.  Since pegs do most of their work outside on sunny hot days, they aren’t really a recyclable product. They are going to end up in landfill or washed down stormwater drains at the end of their lives.    I have a supply of them, and they are great, but only while they are not UV damaged and consequently brittle.  If you want to continue with plastic pegs, at least make sure that they are made locally. 

Go Bamboo pegs – Made in China, biodegradable

These bamboo pegs were my first exploration into the world of sustainable alternatives to plastic pegs.  Priced reasonably at $7 for 20 pegs and packaged in compostable boxes,  these pegs were made for Wellingtons famous winds!  They have an incredibly strong grip. I like them, and would happily have more of them.  They don’t stain or mark clothing.  However on the downside, their grip is so strong that they can be a bit fiddly to get on and off in a hurry (such as a sudden rain shower) and my Mum who has a bit of arthritis finds them nearly impossible to operate.

Go Bamboo make a lot of claims to be sustainable and to have good conditions for their factory workers, but they don’t back any of this up with accreditations such as fairtrade.  This bothers me, but so far I haven’t found an alternative brand with accreditations and so until I do I will continue to use them.  Basically they are asking me to trust that they are being 100% honest about what they are claiming, but an accreditation would make this a much easier decision.

Munch stainless steel pegs = Made in China

These are my newest acquisition.  My darling husband spotted them and got some for me to try.  Not a cheap option at $27 for a bag of 20 pegs, but I have to say so far they are worth it.  They are strong, easy to operate and don’t mark clothing.  They have handled some pretty mean winds and my washing has stayed firmly on the line.  I have no issues with these pegs.  I love them.

Although I haven’t tried them yet, I did stumble across some New Zealand made pegs made from recycled plastic.  They look good, and I am keen to sample them.  A google search turns up several pegs that are made in New Zealand from recycled plastic.  I think this would be a good option if you remain keen on plastic pegs.  Although exposure to UV means they will not be recyclable at the end of their “working life”.

I am unsure which is best actually, sustainable pegs that have to be shipped here contributing to GHG emissions, or plastic pegs made here in New Zealand but that can’t be recycled, thus contributing to landfill and the rising problem of micro-plastics and plastic pollution.  It is a tough one.  In the end I have opted for imported sustainable pegs so that I am no longer contributing old pegs to the plastic problem in our landfills and on our beaches.  I am hopeful that they will prove durable and will outlast the plastic pegs.  But as soon as someone starts making sustainable plastic free pegs right here in New Zealand, I will ditch the imports and buy New Zealand made again.

It may seem like an insignificant step to make towards a more sustainable future, but I think it is worth while.  Plastic pegs are not designed to last for long.  They are designed to be expendable and easily replaceable.  They must contribute a fair bit of plastic over the full life of an average family.  I don’t ever want one of my old pegs to end up inside an albatross chick instead of fish, and I don’t ever want my old pegs washing out to sea to end up polluting a beautiful beach somewhere.  New Zealand has so many native seabirds that this is a real concern for me.  If my pegs are made from wood or metal, that will never be a problem.  I challenge you to make a sustainable change in your laundry to remove another source of plastic, and wherever possible choose to buy local over imports if you can.  Together our consumer choices can make a difference, even if it seems insignificant.  Those discarded bits of plastic don’t seem very important to us, but it matters a huge amount to the albatross chick that gets a peg instead of fish.

Taking the battle of the bag to the produce aisle!

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Plastic free produce. My favorite Rethink string bag (it’s like the Tardis – it looks small but the inside is huge). Cucumber without shrink wrapping.  Fruit and vegetables in Rethink produce bags.  Please note the irritating non-biodegradable sticker on the mandarin, I still can’t manage a  totally plastic free shop, but I do my best to avoid it.

It’s that time of the year again when resolutions are big and good intentions abound.  A New Year and people are encouraged to break bad habits, make lifestyle changes and follow through on promises to change for the better.  Why not make a simple change to reduce your plastic consumption?  Ban the bag has become a strong movement over the last few years and one that seems to finally be getting some support from the general public as reusable bags become commonly available.  Reusable bags are now the norm for many people heading to the supermarket.  I am thrilled to see the change because single use plastic is a slow moving disaster in which we are drowning without being aware of it.  It is everywhere including isolated beaches.  We take it for granted that everything has to come in plastic these days.  We have bought into the idea that everything must be sealed for your protection.  Hygiene is impossible, we are told, without cardboard boxes being sealed in plastic wrap. Our fruit and veges need to be plastic wrapped we are told to prolong the shelf life.  It wasn’t always like this.  My Grandma and Grandpa managed without plastic, and they didn’t wring their hands and wail that they didn’t have supermarket bags to use as bin liners.  There is a future without plastic – just like there was a past without plastic.

Plastic single use supermarket bags are on the out, and boot liners are gone from Mitre10, but single use produce and bulk bin bags are still a problem.  When I began this journey I tried to go plastic free for lent. I figured that going without plastic packaging would be hard but I never imagined that it would be impossible to achieve at the shops I was habitually using.  I was struck the first time I walked into the supermarket (full of good intentions) just how big the plastic problem is.  I walked in to the fruit and vegetable aisle and was immediately confronted with a sea of plastic trays containing pumpkin and cabbage halves sealed with cling film, spring onions in plastic sheathes, apples in plastic bags, lettuces in plastic bags, tomatoes and strawberries in plastic punnets, and it just goes on and on.  Even the loose fruit had plastic stickers on each individual piece, and the only way to get some home was to either take them loose or put them in single use plastic produce bags.  The bulk bins were the same.  There were no alternatives available and everyone was happily using and consuming the plastic without a second thought.

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Rethink bulk bin bags in action.

I was deeply confronted by our plastic dependence as a result of that attempt at a plastic free lent.  So much so that I researched and went shopping for alternatives.  I found them at Commonsense Organics, but they are available online, and many different shops.  I purchased several sets of Rethink organic cotton reusable produce bags and a set of reusable bulk bin bags.  I was impressed with the rethink brand because they are biodegradable.  I didn’t want to replace single use plastic produce bags with reusable plastic netting bags. For me the organic cotton seemed like a better option. I also found some produce bags made from old net curtains at a local farmers market and they have been great too.  Obviously you could even make your own.  I have saved a variety of bags including a Soap Nuts bag, and a fabric rice  bag.  I have also been given a few.  I use them every shop with no trouble.  Printed sticky labels can be easily wrapped around the drawstrings.  I can’t recommend them enough.  They can also be used as delicate bags when you do your laundry.  I have had a large number of curious people approach me to ask where I got them from.  These people do want alternatives and they are far from alone.

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Examples from my collection.  Clockwise from top right; fabric rice bag with zipper; cherries in a re-purposed Soap Nut bag; a nylon mesh bag that I was gifted; one of the handmade bags I got from the farmers market; Rethink bulk bin bag; Rethink produce bag.

I think the problem is that most people just don’t know about the alternatives.  Some people will comment and criticize the plastic bag ban by saying that it doesn’t go far enough, or that it is pointless because there are still plastic wrapped cucumbers and plastic produce bags.  I don’t take that view however, I think big change of any kind is hard and that is why people resist it.  But it isn’t so hard to make small changes.  If you don’t want a plastic wrapped cucumber, you don’t have to buy it.  You can buy an unwrapped short cucumber instead, or you can grow your own.  If you don’t want to use plastic produce and bulk bin bags, rejoice!   There is good news.  There are alternatives and they are easy to use.  If you are frustrated by the endless sea of plastic packaging start making active choices to avoid it where possible, and if it is unavoidable take five minutes to write to the shop or manufacturer and tell them you would prefer an alternative.

I did exactly that at my local New World.  After I found reusable produce bags I was concerned that they are not really a visible option for people, or at least, not as visible as reusable shopping bags which are now found everywhere. I wrote to New World and suggested that they should consider stocking reusable produce bags in the produce aisle.  I told them about Rethink bags and a few other brands I had come across.  I told them that I had tried to avoid plastic packaging and found it hard to know where to begin.  The email took five minutes to write.  I have to admit that I didn’t expect much to come of it.  But a few days later I got an email reply.  They were thrilled to hear from me.  They had not heard of rethink or other brands of reusable produce bags, and thanked me for bringing them to their attention.  Better still, they said they thought it was a brilliant idea and told me to watch the produce aisle because after hearing from me they had ordered them and were planning a stand of them!  I was thrilled to say the least.  A month later, a new display popped up with various sizes of reusable produce bags and also string carry bags.  One 5 minute email made a difference in my local supermarket.  One small but significant change and as a result it is easier for people to opt for an alternative to single use plastic produce bags.

So this New Year why not get some reusable produce bags and make a step on the journey to reduce your plastic consumption.

Make your Christmas a cracker! – DIY Christmas crackers.

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Everything you need to make your own Christmas crackers.  Wrapping paper (from last year), re-purposed toilet rolls, TradeAid Christmas string, chocolate treats, little magnetic bookmarks and embroidery thread as gifts, cracker snaps, and finally handwritten jokes and quotes.

It’s Christmas time again.  Another year is growing old.  School has finished for my kids and they are tired and ready for the summer holiday.  If only the weather would dry out and feel a bit more festive.  Last year I wrote a blog about ethical ideas for Christmas.  This year I thought I would encourage people to get creative and try ditching the bought crackers full of cheap plastic trinkets.  Let’s be honest, the rubbish in commercial crackers is almost immediately forgotten. The plastic trinkets end up in the rubbish sack when the dinner table is cleared after Christmas dinner, or a few days later they go up the vacuum cleaner.  If you really want them, why not make them?  Or get your kids to make them for you.  It is actually really easy.

It is so easy to consume things we don’t really need.  We are told that buying will make us happy, but actually love makes us happy, love is what makes us feel safe and secure.  Love is something you can’t buy.  My husband was recently in California again for work.  He was saddened to see signs everywhere saying things like “give a toy, give joy” and “Toys bring happiness”.  Those billboards couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.  Toy’s and things don’t bring happiness, LOVE brings happiness and joy.  Sacrificial love, not love of things.  Christmas is really about love, and it always has been.  The first Christmas in a stable long ago was about love.  It is time to reconnect a bit with the real reason for the season.  It is hard to that when it’s all been so commercialised.

If we truly care for the environment then we will think carefully about what we choose to buy even at Christmas.  Cheap crackers with rubbish inside that are instantly thrown away are not something that the planet needs.  In light of this our family hasn’t bought crackers for years.  Some years we haven’t had any at all – and I promise you Christmas wasn’t ruined because they were missing.  Some years I have made them, and the response is worth the effort.  People really enjoy something when they can see the effort and love you put into it.

If you or your kids are looking for a little extra something to do in the last few days before Christmas, why not give it a go.  You can even do it without snaps.

First, save a few toilet rolls.

Second; google some actually funny jokes and write them on slips of paper.  Or if you prefer, search up some inspiring quotes to help get people motivated for the coming year.  You could even personalise it further and write a nice little note to the recipient about what makes them special in your eyes.

Third; find some nice little treats small enough to fit inside a toilet roll, chocolate coins, minties, fruit bursts, liquor chocolates etc.

If you are keen on little presents then find or make a little gift for each cracker.  Usually I have chosen little Christmas decorations or small cookie cutters etc.  Other ideas are pencil sharpeners, or home baking.

Forth; if you want crackers that crack, then you will need to find the snaps.  I got mine from Pete’s Emporium in Petone, but I have seen them for sale in all sorts of places and if you are desperate a google search should help you to locate them.

Fifth; get wrapping – use reused Christmas wrap from last year or make your own from large pieces of paper. Or if you are brave newspaper! Use salvaged ribbon to tie the ends.

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The finished cracker!  Looks better than a bought one and it is made with love, it couldn’t be better.

Bingo – your Christmas crackers are done.  It can be fiddly but it is fun and actually it doesn’t take too long.  If you turn the TV off for an hour one evening you can easily make them with the family helping around the table.  You can even personalise them so everyone gets something they actually want!

I don’t know why crackers are only ever seen at Christmas…. why not make them for a family birthday to add some fun to the birthday dinner table, or New Year even?  The possibilities are endless.

That first Christmas 2000 years ago was about love, but it was also about family, and relationships.  Those are things that you can’t buy either.  It is so easy to get caught up in the commercialisation and to feel pressured to spend and buy.  But for us, our experience has always been that the best Christmas’ are nothing to do with what you get given, the best ones are always about being with others and showing them that you love them.

Excessive business and rushing in our lives and societies seems to drive us to consume more stuff.  When you consciously step back from that business and choose to slow down a bit, it seems like you have more time to think about what you really need, what other people need and perhaps most importantly, what the environment really needs.

Recycled paper, ribbon, and re-purposed toilet rolls.  Small treats, home baking and hand-written jokes, it really is worth the effort and it isn’t bad for the environment or your wallet.  It is one small way to show your family that you love them, and to care for the planet at the same time.

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone.

Plastic free razzle dazzle – DIY eco-glitter

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DIY eco-glitter that you can make at home.  It’s biodegradable, compostable, and easy.  Clockwise from top: dyed cous cous, dyed eggshells prior to crushing, eggshell glitter, beautiful coloured rice.  Center: dyed penne pasta.

Over the time I have been writing this blog, one of the themes that has emerged is a strong desire to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that we use. I want to become more sustainable, taking care of the world I live in leaving a ‘feather light” footprint on the Earth.  That whole concept – to leave a feather light footprint – is so much harder to achieve than it looks in popular glossy magazine articles.  Hard, but I firmly believe that it is achievable – one step at a time.  Today’s step towards a more sustainable future involves mircoplastic.  In particular, craft glitter (but body glitter and make up glitters are equally problematic).

Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.  Microplastics are defined as small particles of plastic that are 100nm to 5mm in size .    These microplastic particles are small enough to be ingested by many organisms and as a result there are concerns about bioaccumulation in our food chain.  There are two ways microplastics are formed.  Firstly, they can be formed from the breakdown of larger plastic debris in the environment. Secondly, they can be pre-made, such as the microbeads that were in common consumer products such as toothpaste and facial scrubs before they were banned in 2018 in New Zealand.

The term microplastic is commonly associated with the microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries. Of course there is more than one type of microplastic causing problems.  Fibres from synthetic fabrics can get into the water from our washing machines, other types of plastic break down into micro-plastics once they are discarded.  We saw this first hand when our family visited Mana Island earlier this year.  We participated in a beach clean-up where we were astonished at the amount of plastic that you could pick up in one hour, but we were also dismayed to find fragile pieces of plastic that broke into ever smaller fragments at the lightest touch.  This is a problem we are going to have to grapple with here in New Zealand too, because microplastics are being found around our coasts.

This is not just an environmental problem but also a health problem for us because these microplastics make their way into soils and waterways and from there into the ocean and ultimately into the food chain.  Microplastic has now been found in humans for the first time.   I don’t know about you but this causes me a lot of concern.

Did you know that glitter is actually plastic?  Yep that’s right, that wonderful craft item we all take for granted.  A must-have item in any home with kids and found everywhere at Christmas.  Once you know that glitter is plastic it is alarming when you consider how it is used at kindergartens, playcentres, day care, or schools.   Kids (and adults) throw this stuff around at every opportunity.  It gets into hair (and eyes), stuck to skin, all over tables, chairs, and floors where it leaves a sparkly evidence of the activity you have just been doing.  After the glitter is finished with, the tables get wiped down with a wet cloth that is rinsed in the sink and the glitter on the floor gets walked inside and outside (and everywhere in between) until it is vacuumed or mopped up.

It’s a similar story at home.  My kids love art and craft.  All three of them have been art and craft crazy since they were tiny.  We’ve had our share of glitter and I have dealt with a fair number of unexpected glitter bombs!  The most memorable glitter bomb occurred when I came back after a quick trip to the toilet to find my toddler had managed to spread glitter all over himself, the chair, the table, the floor, the window sill, and the kitchen bench behind him where it was adorning the loaf of freshly baked bread that was cooling on the bench.  There were glittery footprints all around the kitchen and lounge. When he moved he appeared to be enveloped in a sparkling cloud, and he looked like a tiny Elton John.  It was interesting trying to clean up after that.

A couple of years ago, I realised that glitter is, in fact, almost always plastic and therefore non-biodegradable.  We haven’t bought any new glitter since.  Having discovered the truth about glitter I was then confronted with what to use as an alternative.  I had to come up with something to provide the razzle, dazzle, glitz and glam to the endless array of craft productions in our house.  To begin with, I steered my kids into environmentally friendly (and cheaper) alternatives.  We picked up acorn shells, autumn leaves, feathers, and even sand.  We used flower petals too.  We had a lot of fun, but it isn’t quite the same as glitter.

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Gorgeous eggshell eco-glitter before and after crushing.  Want finer glitter?  Just smack it harder!

What did people use before glitter?  I pondered this question for a while and then asked my mum who trained to be a kindy teacher in the 1950’s, “what on earth did you do before there was glitter?”   Back then glitter was really expensive and was usually made from powdered glass. She suggested using dyed crushed up eggshells.  Brilliant!  I tried it, the kids loved it, and they could also be involved in the manufacturing process from beginning to end.  We saved eggshells for weeks, and then we washed and dried them.  I boiled water, added food colouring and a teaspoon of white vinegar (to set the colour) and added eggshells.  I left them to sit in the hot dye till they looked nice and bright.  Then we took them out and left them to dry in the sun on a paper towel.  Magic! Bright and vibrant, the kids were instantly attracted to them.  Once they had dried, the kids had a fabulous time crushing them up in their fingers on a tray.  The end result was as fine or as coarse as you want to make it.  The kids used it instead of glitter without any complaints.  To my eyes it actually made for brighter pictures because glitter can appear dark if the light isn’t catching it but the coloured eggshells look bright from every angle.

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Penne for your thoughts…… is this bright enough for you?

Another technique is to dye rice, different shaped pasta, or couscous using a small amount of hand sanitiser and food colouring.  This process is interesting because there are so many pasta shapes out there.  You can even get alphabet pasta and dye that.

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Glitterbugs beware, coloured cou cous is very hard to resist.

I wanted to see how successful dying pasta and rice would actually be, and so I set about dying small amounts of rice and pasta using hand sanitizer and food colouring.  The results were lovely and bright.  I left the coloured rice and pasta on plates to dry overnight.  Next morning I showed my efforts to my 5 and a half year old son and 8 year old daughter as they ate breakfast.  I asked what they thought of it and they were very impressed.  So much so that I later caught my little boy setting up for a full-on craft extravaganza at the table with paper, glue, and glitter alternatives all set out ready for action.  He was super keen to get started, before I had even had a chance to photograph the glitter alternatives for this blog post!  I think that is an indication of how bright and enticing the finished product is.  All three of my kids are really keen on these alternatives to craft glitter.  It has all been a huge success.  The whole process is great, from preparing them to using them, and it is a learning experience as well.

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Fabulous vividly coloured rice is so tempting to creative little artists. So simple to make and fully biodegradable in your household compost heap.

Here in New Zealand we have a word – Kaitiaki.  It means guardians.  That is how we should all see ourselves, as guardians of our land and the creatures we share it with. Today I showed my kids that we don’t need plastic glitter.  It is just one step, but it is a step in the right direction.  Why not give it a try.  Kick the glitter habit and try plastic free craft fun.

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, clothes pegs, 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.

 

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.

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.