Thursday, 24 December 2009

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Hands up if you have a plastic Christmas tree. Ok, if you’ve got a hand in the air, then maybe this is the best time for you to step out of the room.

Fake Plastic Trees
I hate plastic Christmas trees. And I say the word hate with as much venom as I can muster. Ok, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. If you want to have a plastic tree, then that’s your choice. But, personally, I don’t see the point. Christmas for me (well, part of it anyhow) is coming down in the morning and getting that beautiful waft of Christmas tree smell. It’s having those pine needles all over the sitting room floor, and it’s watching the cat go mental chasing after them. Aside from the fact that it’s ugly and plastic, you just don’t get any of that with a fake tree.

Or the Real Thing
I’m sure there are downsides, ecologically and environmentally speaking, to having a real tree in my house at Christmas, and I really should look into them, but right now I’m pretty much just thinking: Christmas! Tree! Christmas! Tree!

Bron and I went to buy our tree last Friday. There’s a farm on the edge of Newquay that sells them, where we go each year. I don’t know where their trees come from – they don’t grow them themselves – but I figure at least this way I’m supporting the local community more than if I bought a tree from, say, B&Q.

Now, as you may have guessed by my earlier rant, in my world choosing the right Christmas tree is a serious business. There was uproar a few years ago, when I still lived at home, and my parents decided to buy a teeny tiny one that would sit on the coffee table. ‘I want a BIG tree!’ was pretty much the repeated refrain. I got used to the little one (kind of), but they’ve never taken that route again.

So come Friday, there Bron and I were, at the farm, going round looking very carefully at all the trees to find the most perfect one for our little home. After some very careful consideration – and after our running favourite got stolen away from under our noses by some other punter, the decision was made. Take it up to the barn and hand it over to the man, who pops it through his special machine to tie it all up.

Say No to Netting
Hang on a second, did I say tie it up? Yes, I did. And I knew it was going to happen – we’ve been there every year for the last four years, after all, but I just didn’t stop it. So now our lovely bright, fresh tree is wrapped up in plastic netting.

It’s a bit of a conundrum this one. Though, having said that, maybe it shouldn’t be. People have been buying trees and lugging them home in their unwrapped state for decades, why can’t we do that today? Because it’s easier to have it wrapped up. It goes in the car easier (or, in this case, Bron’s van) and it’ll lose fewer needles and twigs along the journey. So I get more for my money. Which is a good thing, right?

But what about all that plastic netting? Not just from my tree, but from the hundreds and thousands of trees that have been purchased in this country alone over the last couple of weeks. It’ll all go into the bin and off to the dump, and then we’ll all do the same thing again next year. What a waste.

And from this perspective, I have to wonder, are plastic trees really that bad? At least they go away into the attic at the end of the season each year. Oof. No. Sorry, I just can’t do it. But next year I will have to promise to be strong and take my tree as it comes. Maybe I should start a campaign: Say No to Netting.

A Real Plastic Tree?
On the side of alternative trees, though, here is one that I saw at the Eden Project a few days ago. It has a metal frame, but other than that it’s made entirely of plastic bags. Not only a cunning statement, but pretty effective. I’d love to see it all lit up in the evening.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Ah, post. Who doesn’t love getting post? Well, I’m not so keen on bills or scary looking letters from the Inland Revenue, but hand-written post is a different story. Post lets you know that someone is thinking of you, maybe that someone even loves you.

And what’s better than post? Parcels!

So when I dragged myself through the door after a long and frustrating day at work to find a parcel sitting on my doormat, my interest was immediately piqued. Hmm, I thought. I don’t recognise the hand-writing, so it’s not from my mum or anyone else I know…

In the world of post, is there anything better than a parcel? Well, duh: a parcel with chocolate in it of course!

‘I tried so hard to find chocolates without plastic,’ the accompanying card said. ‘And all the best ones were sealed up.’ I beg to differ: these chocolates are not only yummy, but organic and fair-trade, care of the Organic Seed and Bean Company. I’d take a picture of them for you if I hadn’t already ripped into the packet and eaten half of them.

And the mysterious benefactor of the chocolate? My MA tutor, Susy, to say thank you for giving her full-time students a tour of the bookshop I work in. Effectively, she’s sent me chocolate for doing my job – not that I’m going to send it back! Thank you Susy. It is a really nice and thoughtful thing to do.

But: here’s my dilemma. To tell her or not to tell her that, after all her effort and consideration into my plastic plight, her careful selection of chocolate without a plastic seal around the box – something that is much easier thought about than found – do I tell her that hidden away inside the cardboard the chocolate was sealed in plastic?

I do find it both sad and ironic that this particular chocolate company, having considered so carefully where they will source their fair-trade ingredients, how to flavour their product, and how to present it in as natural way as possible, have hidden the plastic away underneath. I know and understand that in many cases food products are sealed in plastic today for hygiene purposes, but surely that’s not really necessary with chocolate – it’s just what we’re used to these days, what we’re told we need. But do we really need it with everything?

And as I write this I’m wondering how psychological it all is, too. Is there a perception that the better items are those that are wrapped in plastic?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

How clean is your beach?

This is the plastic that Bron and I collected during our Sunday afternoon walk on the beach a couple of weeks ago.

This pile represents less than an hour of selective picking by the two of us – we left behind the big stuff, the water bottles and crisp packets and the things that I wasn’t prepared to touch without a nice, sanitary pair of (plastic?) gloves. And so this pile represents just the tip of the iceberg.

How clean is clean?
The beach that we collected this from – Fistral in Newquay, Cornwall – is a clean, tidy, well cared for beach. And yet look at what we found. As soon as you start to look a little closer, it’s right there staring at you.

Mermaid’s Tears
I think what surprised me the most were the nurdles. Perhaps more commonly known as mermaid’s tears, these are basically how raw plastic is transported: little plastic pellets that can then be melted down and melted together to make plastic items. I've included a five pence piece in this picture to give you an idea of their size. They’re tiny, they easily blend in with the sand, and you only notice them once you really start to look hard – and then they’re everywhere. It’s no wonder creatures so often mistake them for food.

And Bottle Tops
Aside from the nurdles, the other type of plastic that seemed to show up more than any other were these cover lids from, probably, bottles of water.

Collecting this plastic was certainly an interesting and useful exercise, but Bron asked me the ultimate question:

'What are you going to do with it now?'

I've had to put it in our bin, unfortunately - it really is not too nice and I'm sorry, but I don't want it lying around the house forever. I know I'm just adding to the waste pile, but my reasoning is that at least it'll be marginally better there than kicking around on the beach.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Praise be to Archie Browns!

We have an almost unspoken deal in our household that one person cooks and the other washes up. We don’t have a dishwasher, so we wash our dishes the old fashioned way: fairy liquid and a green scourer. Although it’s not actually that old fashioned when I come to think of it: the scourers come from the shop in plastic wrapping, the fairy liquid in a plastic bottle. And giving up doing the washing up isn’t exactly an option at the end of the day, no matter how much I wish it was.

Thank goodness for Archie Brown’s, then. This wonderful little health store and vegetarian café opened up in Truro about a year ago. Before I decided to give up plastic I’d never been there, but in my search for plastic alternatives it was an obvious place to visit. The main ethic behind the store is to be eco and ethically friendly, so they sell a range of products from ethical make-up and beauty products to gluten free pasta, health supplements, and local veg.

Most of what they stock comes in plastic packaging, but the most beautiful thing I’ve discovered they do is Refills. Yes, Refills with a capital R. This is such a simple idea and I wish, wish, wish that there were more shops out there that do it and with a greater variety of products. As for Archie Brown’s, they do refills for cleaning products – laundry detergent, toilet cleaner, washing up liquid.

A few weeks back, when I first discovered them, I bought two plastic litre-sized bottles of their ‘Bio D’ washing up liquid. Yes, plastic, I know, but I’ve no intention of putting these bottles in the bin or the recycling because I’ll be taking back each bottle once it’s emptied and having it refilled from the tank in store. Wonderful! Not only does this save on packaging, but it’s cheaper too, and they only use ecological products such as Bio D, Ecoleaf, and Ecover.

And as for the green scourers? Lakeland saved me there: I bought a pack of four Lancashire cloths which came wrapped in a simple cardboard band. No plastic packaging and every time they start to get manky, instead of throwing them in the bin and opening a new packet, I simply stick them in the washing machine and start again.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Disaster! No More Ice Cream!

The Death of Ice Cream?
Noooo! I have just discovered that what I thought was a paper wrapping around my daily choc ice isn’t paper at all. It looks like paper, it feels like paper, and it tears like paper, but according to the box it’s actually plastic. And I thought choc ices were safe. What on earth am I going to do now?

The thought of going without ice cream after my dinner each evening feels me with so much dread I’m sure I’m having palpitations. Beads of sweat are breaking out on my forehead and my hands have started to shake.

To Ben and Jerry’s – or not ?
I can’t buy supermarket brand ice cream or brands like Carte D’or as they’re all in plastic tubs. Haagen Dazs has a plastic lid and even Ben and Jerry’s (mmm, my mouth is watering just thinking about their Baked Alaska) is a no-no. The tub may look like card, and although most of it is, paper and ice cream don’t really mix that well, so it’s coated in a virtually invisible layer of polyethylene to stop it from leaking. I guess that’s the same reason why the choc ices I’ve been buying are wrapped in plastic rather than paper, too.

Looking at Ben and Jerry’s website, though, I’m very impressed with the environmental attempts. Despite the plastic coating, their tubs are made of 90% renewable paper stock, they use water based inks for printing, and in their ‘scoop shops’ they’ve switched to corn-based cold drinks cups that are compostable. It’s not rocket science, and there’s still lots more that they can do, but at least they’re thinking about it and they’re trying. Which is more than I can say for Haagan Dazs – take a look at their website and there’s nothing about their environmental policies or their packaging.

So, are there any options left - at all?
In the meantime, though, on my last shopping trip I found myself staring, glassy-eyed at the range of ice cream and lolly goodness arrayed in the freezers in front of me. None if which I should allow myself to buy. Ice cream is out, Magnums are out, choc ices are now out. The supermarket brand cornettos say they use mixed materials for their wrappings, which probably means the same cup of tea as the Ben and Jerry tubs.

‘Oh, but they’re sooo yummy,’ the little voice in my head says.

‘But you mustn’t!’ my conscience rallies.

‘They’re not entirely plastic, though,’ the other voice says. ‘So it’s not all bad. Maybe buy them just this once more, and make them last a really long time so you can wean yourself off gradually…’

‘Dammit!’ the good voice says, as I look in the trolley again. ‘How did those cornettos sneak in there?’