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?

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.