I’m not schedule to publish an article till Friday but this is a bonus article to accompany my talk on ‘Living with Less Plastic’ on the GIY stage at Bloom in the Park 2019 and to celebrate World Environment Day (WED), which is today!
It’s been a whirlwind of a week, one that included an interview on WLR radio about plastic packaging, my talks at Bloom and a photo session with a photographer of the Irish Times to go with a pieces in their magazine about buying pre-owned goods.
Firstly welcome to all the new followers to the Facebook Page, Instagram Account and website. I hope you find the content useful and inspiring. Feel feel to contact me if there’s any specific advise you’re in need of. So without further ado lets dive into the content of my ‘Living with Less Plastic’ talk
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Why do we need to reduce our use of plastic?
Every time something is made and transported we use up valuable resources and burn fossil fuels to provide energy. Burning fossil fuel puts carbon in the atmosphere which increases the temperature of the earth. This causes desert areas on the planet to enlarge and the polar ice-caps melt which flood into the sea increasing sea levels. Similarly warm water expands so as the sea gets warmer it gets bigger it engulfs more land. So between rising sea levels, enlarged areas of desert and a growing human population we’re heading towards more people having less land to live and grow our food on.
So in a nutshell we don’t just need to reduce our use of plastic, we need to reduce our use of EVERYTHING, but in this talk we’re just going to look at plastic and in particular single-use plastic.
Plastic is made from oil and when an oil is drilled it typically comes up with other gases like methane which are burnt off. Methane is said to be 30 times worst than carbon in terms of it’s impact on atmospheric temperatures. So even the very act of extracting oil if environmentally damaging.
There’s no two ways about it plastic is an amazingly versatile and durable material – durable enough to last for up to 600 years. But us being us we don’t just like a little of a good thing, we like a lot of is and so instead of valuing this finite resource we use it for short-terms uses. According to Sky’s Ocean Rescue 50% of plastic made is used for less than 12 minutes.
But surely recycling solves our problems with plastic? Well not really. Although better than landfill or incineration recycling is still a environmentally damaging process. See my article on Why Recycling isn’t the answer to find out why.
Similarly you might hope that biodegradable or compostable plastic could be solution. Afraid it’s the same. Switching to disposable biodegradable or compostable plastic is not going to get up out of the mess we’re in and I explain why in my article Why I don’t like biodegradable / compostable plastic.
So now that we know why we have to reduce our use of plastic let’s look at some simple changes we can make to reduce the amount of plastic that we use in our lives.
Out and About
Did you know that the best before date on water bottles is not because the water goes off? It’s the date at which the amount of chemicals leeched into the water from the plastic bottle reaches unhealthy levels. Nice! Avoid all those toxins and use a refillable bottle and now you don’t have to even lug the thing around, just refill it at one of the many refill points show on Refill.ie’s Tap Map
Reusable Tea / Coffee Cups
We’ve all heard about reusable tea / coffee cups, but how many of us remember to use them? If you repeatedly forget to bring your reusable cup then consider sitting in and having a coffee in a ceramic cup or going without. If you don’t make it worth you while to remember you simply won’t
But what about compostable cups? The odd compostable single-up cup is okay but single-use items, even if they’re compostable still require a huge amount of resources and energy to process, manufacture, transport, collect and dispose of. Also if they aren’t put into a brown bin they will either go to landfill where they create methane, which contributes to global warming, or get incinerated with puts toxins into the air that we breath. Happy days! To find the coffee cups that best suits you check out my guide to choosing a reusable coffee cup
I use strong cotton and strong plastic bags for my food shopping but when I’m out and about I only have fabric (polyester) bags that fold away into a tiny pouch in my handbag. That way i’m never without a bag and don’t have to buy disposable plastic carrier bags or avail of resource and energy intensive paper bags. My favourite foldaway bag comes from Reisenthal. They’re super strong and mine have lasted over 20 years.
I bring a container with me whenever I’m out either to buy food in, like salad from Chopped, or to take left overs home in. I happen to pick up a great collapsible one in a charity shop but any light weight plastic or metal one will do.
Eat In when Out
When eating out aim to use reusable cups, plates, spoons and glasses and limit your use of napkins and straws. Reusables are always more sustainable than single-use even if those single-use items are compostable.
Reusable Produce Bags
I buy all most of my fruit and veg from a green grocer loose which helps me to avoid a huge amount of packaging. I have cotton produce bags for things like tomatoes and carrots, which I’ve used in many supermarkets with no problem at all. I bought mine in the Dublin Food Coop in D7 the best. They are organic cotton and come in a range of sizes but if you’re crafty you could make your own.
I buy my bread in Lidl, which I place sliced in cotton produce bags. I never had an issue using these bags in Lidl and they allow me to put the bread straight into the freezer when i get home. We then defrost / toast the bread as we need it helping to avoid food waste. I actually use the frozen bread to make up the kids sandwiches. The bread defrosts slowly over the day keeping the lunch cool and preventing the bread from drying out in the lunch box.
I’ve been using the same washing-up liquid bottle for 3 years, actually I’ve been using the same 4 bottles for 3 years. I just get them refilled once a year and I have enough washing-up liquid to keep me going for the next 12 months. You can get refills for laundry powder, shampoo, liquid soap, vinegar, soy sauce.
Condensed or Hydrated Versions
If you can’t avoid packaging then try and buy condensed version of items like creamed coconut instead of tinned coconut milk. Dehydrated or condensed versions tend to be lighter and smaller than their full-sized counterparts so transporting them requires less space and less fuel, which puts less carbon into the atmosphere.
Another way to reduce packaging is to buy bulk sizes of some products. A extra large box of cornflakes it going to use less packaging overall than multiple packs of the smaller size. The only caveat is that you have to be able to eat the product before it goes off, otherwise it’s wasteful, just a different kind.
Locally or Organically Grown
If you can’t avoid plastic packaging then aim to buy locally or organically-grown packaged goods. Locally grown food will have no air-miles thereby saving on carbon emissions and organically grown food is better for biodiversity and soil health.
In the Kitchen
I’ve had the same roll of cling film for 3 years now. I use it on very rare occasions. I can’t actually remember the last time I used it, maybe to wrap fondant icing to store. When I have leftovers I simply put them in a bowl and place a plate over the top, easy peasy and no risk of the nasty chemicals in the cling film leeching into my food.
When it comes to storing fruit and veg I find a tea-towel works much better than plastic. I wrap it around lettuce and use it as a lid for mushrooms in a ceramic bowl. I also find fabric is the best thing to store cheese in, inside an airtight container. I simply change the fabric wrapping about 1 a week, as it gets damp, to prevent mould growing.
Not plastic but a waste of resources all the same so we limit our use of tinfoil by using an enamel lidded roasting tin from Argos to roast meat in. Its glass-like surface is non-stick without that worrisome non-stick Teflon coatings that have been linked to cancer. The one we have came from Argos and cost us €18. I would have preferred to have bought a higher-end version but this was all I could find and after a year of use it’s still going strong.
Ditch Greaseproof Paper
Modern day greaseproof and parchment paper is made using sulphuric acid and then coated with silicone or oil-based wax, making neither recyclable or compostable. Instead of using it I coat bakeware with butter and a layer of flour or use a reusable silicone sheet.
I use jars to store everything, even in the freezer. My favourite are the large pickle jars from Aldi, which I get for free after I’ve scoffed all the pickles. They’re great for soups and leftovers and as long as you leave a gap at the top for liquids to expand you shouldn’t get any breakages in the freezer.
Minimise Paper Towel Usage
Although compostable paper towels come in plastic wrapping and require energy and water to process, manufacture, package, transport, collect and dispose off, so minimising their use is sustainably smart. I use paper towels to mop up grease for really, really mucky jobs but mostly I use a reusable fabric rag (typically from old clothes) that gets washed the next time I’m putting a load on.
Swap Bedding Plants for Hardy Annual Seeds
Bedding plants are a complete waste of money. Not only do they need replacing every year, they typically come in non-recyclable Styrofoam or black plastic containers, are sprayed sell bee-friendly plants coated in bee-killing pesticides and contain none or very little pollen for our insects. So give them a miss and plant perennial plants that come back year after year and hardy annual seeds directly into the flower beds. The annals will self-sow, germinating all on their own each spring allowing you sit back and enjoy with very little effort. Check out my article on germinating seeds for some suppliers of organic seeds in Ireland or better still swap with friends!
Making your own compost from your own kitchen and garden waste is one of the most sustainable activities you can engage in and if you follow my guide to making compost it’s super easy. If you can’t make your own then consider buying peat-free 100% organic compost made in Ireland, package-free from Mulch in Dublin 17 or in returnable bags from Landscape Depot in Dublin 24 or Mulch in Dublin. If those locations don’t suit check out this list of stockists to find a supplier closer to you.
Even if you end up having to buy compost in plastic bags do not, under any circumstances by compost with peat in it. Apart from having completely unique eco-systems bogs are also very beneficial to the wider environment. They soak up water in times of flooding and slowly release it during dry periods, thereby helping to regulate water systems. When we cut bogs we cause the organic matter in them to be eroded, resulting in silting lakes and river beds, which can lead to increased flooding – something we’ve seen a lot of in Ireland in recent years. Bogs also serve as a ‘carbon sink’, i.e. it locks carbon into it. Due to the low oxygen levels the dead layers of peat are not able to decompose. Therefore, the carbon contained in the dead peat never oxidises into CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere. By locking away this CO2, the bogs keeping it out of the atmosphere, which effectively slows down the heating of the planet and as a result climate change. Unfortunately when we drain bogs, microbes find a perfect combination of food (carbon) and oxygen in the drying peat, causing the locked carbon be released into the atmospherics as CO2. Globally, drained and decaying peat bogs release approximately three billion tons per year of CO2, or roughly 6 percent of all such greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.
In addition to compost you can make your own leaf mould, which is ideal for raising seedling in, by stuffing wet leaves in a bag made either from chicken wire or plastic with holes pierced in it. Just leaves the bags for a year or two and you’ll have lovely crumbly leaf mould, which is also good for woodland plants.
Avoid Plastic Pots
There are enough plastic pots in circulation to keep every gardener going for eternity so we want to generating more. I like to buy from nurseries that grown on their own plants, that way I can return any pots I’ve accumulated (washed of course) to them for reuse. My favourite nursery is Caherhurley Nursery in Clare. They are the only organic nursery in Ireland and they sell their very well priced, sturdy plants around the country at ISNA plant fairs.
There is a lot of misunderstanding out here about how to live sustainably. Some of it is just accidental and some is down to greenwashing by companies wanting to profit on the confusion. I’ve written a comprehensive list of the most common examples of eco folklore, misunderstandings and greenwashing that I come across.
Key Principle of Sustainable Living
Sustainable living may sound confusion but it’s not, it’s really only about one thing; reducing our consumption of EVERYTHING – raw materials, food, water and energy- and the best way to do that is by using the 7 R’s of Zero Waste Living.
Refuse – don’t take that free pen or bag or t-shirt. It’s wasteful if you’re not going to get at least 100 uses out of it.
Reuse – use what you current own instead of buying something new and refill existing packaging like jars instead of recycling an replacing with a new one. Borrowing and lending is another great example of reusing what we have and it helps our planet by helping us to avoid buying an item for one-off jobs.
Reduce – Where you can’t avoid packaging completely, aim to buy the least that you can and I’ve given you some tips above on how to do this.
Repair – buying new items kick starts a chain of events that involves the extraction and processing of raw materials, their transportation to a factory, the manufacturing of an item, the manufacturing of packaging, the transportation of that packaging to the factory, the transportation of the product to the store or customer, the collection and disposal of the packaging, and the collection and disposal of the product at the end of it’s life. All of these steps use energy, typically provided by fossil fuel, which puts carbon into the atmosphere which speeds up climate change and worsens the climate crisis we’re currently in. By reusing and repairing what we have we prevent this chain of events from happening and every time we do that we’re helping safeguard our future.
Rehome – I feel it is my responsibility to find a home for something I no longer need. I only ever donate things to charity shops that I’d happily give a friend, anything of less than perfect quality I offer through free cycle pages and online market places until i find someone that can use it. It does take time but it is tremendously wasteful to put something that still works into landfill or recycling. Once you start doing this you’ll get very good at preventing ‘stuff’ from entering your life again. Here’s my guide to rehoming things online to get you started.
Buying pre-owned stuff instead of new is rehoming in reverse. By buying pre-owned instead of new you prevent the carbon created by that a new item from being released into the atmosphere. You also save the the item from ending up in landfill. 80-90% of what my family buys is pre-owned, not only is it sustainable, it saves us an absolute bloody fortune.
Recycle & Rot – these options are a last resort if you’re trying to live sustainably. In my article Why Recycling isn’t the answer I explain why we need to minimise recycling as much as possible in favour of reuse and allowing things to rot is really only sustainable when it involves inedible food and garden waste. When we compost food that could have been eaten we’re not just wasting the food we’re waiting all of the energy and resources that went into planting, germinating, growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, collecting and disposing of that food, most of which relies on the burning of fossil fuels.
In conclusion ….
Are you feeling overwhelmed? I hope not. If you are, just breathe and pick one thing to try this week. You don’t have to succeed you just have to try and then next week pick something else.
We didn’t get into this mess on our own. Plastic has become ubiquitous because it’s cheap to make and allows retailers to generate greater profits. Plastic food packaging protects food so well supermarkets can now search the 4 corners of the globe for the best prices and having fruit and veg prepacked allows them to get customers through the check out quicker, again helping to increase profits. It’s not going to change unless we make it, and we can only do that one step at a time.
And i’m going to make the first step very easy. If you found this article helpful please share it on you Facebook timeline or email it to a few friends. The more of us that choose sustainable options the easier, and cheaper, it will become for all of us.
Thanks for reading
PS – Seeing as I gave this talk at a gardening festival you might be interested in my other gardening articles.