Saturday, 27 February 2010

Totes and Tote Tags

‘Are we supposed to be keeping those?’ someone at work asks me, pointing to a little pot full of yellow and green plastic tags sitting on my desk.

‘No,’ I say, ‘But I’m trying to collect them.’

These tags are from the new boxes that the shop’s deliveries come in. Goodbye cardboard and tape, hello blue plastic totes.

Gritting my teeth, I prepare for the inevitable follow-up question: ‘Why?’

I’m going to be deliberately vague; I don’t feel like explaining myself in too much detail on this particular day. ‘Just to see how many I can get,’ I say.

Every tote has four tags. On average, we receive forty totes a day, five days a week; more at Christmas. That’s eight hundred little inch-long plastic tags a week. And there are three hundred stores in the company I work for. The math on that one is pretty scary: 240,000 each week. Or 12,480,000 in a year; twelve million, four hundred and eighty thousand. I can’t help but wonder where on earth they’re all going to go.

People put them in the bin or in the little collecting pot I’ve got going. They get spread across the floor, both in the stockroom and in the shop, where they get in the way of book trolleys, prams and pushchairs. Or they get thrown back into the bottom of the totes they’ve come from in the first place.

As the weeks go by the totes coming into the store develop a layer of plastic tags along the bottom, damaging the books that have been thrown in on top, sticking between the pages. I picture the day when I’ll open a tote to find it full of just these plastic tags, and not a book in sight.

What a strange system to have devised. The company’s new ‘Hub’ – a central warehouse where all publishers deliver orders to be sorted, repackaged and sent out to stores in one bulk delivery – is supposed to streamline the business. There is less cardboard coming into the store, sure, but that’s only because it all goes to the Hub instead. And it’s quite likely that there is less road mileage, as each publisher makes one delivery to the Hub rather than delivering direct to three hundred stores. That can only be a good thing. But all these plastic tags? What a classic example of corporate business failing to see the bigger picture.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A Mobile Quandary, part 2

I wrote a few weeks ago about my mobile quandary: my current mobile phone is on its last legs and, as hard as I try, I can’t envisage my life without a mobile phone these days. Especially given as my landline has, for no apparent reason, randomly decided to give up the ghost.

The Bamboo Alternative
I mentioned before that I didn’t think it was possible to get a phone that wasn’t plastic. It still isn’t possible for me to get one, but a little further research has revealed that such phones do exist, thanks to the wonder of bamboo. In fact, it seems that there are several different versions of bamboo phones out there in the internet ether. There is the wind-up bamboo phone which won the 2008 Greener Gadgets design competition, or the Chute Smartphone by Michael Laut. Problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any way to actually buy one of these, though I’m sure it would cost me a good chunk of my month’s rent even I could. But they’re very pretty and sound like they have excellent eco credentials, so if anyone knows how I can get my hands on one please do tell me.

Eco Options
It also turns out that Sony Ericksson are not the only phone manufacturers testing out the eco waters. Nokia, Samsung, and Motorola have all been up to it as well. I particularly recommend taking a look at the Nokia site, if only for an example of a beautiful piece of marketing and presentation. And it does the job: I want one of these phones. A pity that it’s several years old and now appears to be obsolete. At least, no network I can find lists this particular phone, the 3110 Evolve, as being available.

What each of these phones have in common is the use of bioplastics, plastic engineered from plants, such as corn, rather than from petrochemicals. While this is generally a good thing, bioplastics have their own problems too, and are not as clear-cut environmentally friendly as many people would like to think. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the use of what would otherwise be a food crop for constructing technology. Is this ethical given the number of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat?

Either way, the question I asked before has changed slightly. If everyone has the capability to produce mobiles that are at least slightly more environmentally considerate – as a mobile phone goes, anyhow – then why not apply this technology to all phones?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


My best friend, B, just had her first baby. A beautiful little girl with a shock of dark hair weighing in at a nice seven pounds plus. It’s very exciting. Well, it’s exciting for me – as a young woman of certain breeding age that is surrounded by friends and colleagues having babies left, right, and centre. Literally.

What does B having a baby mean? Presents! Off I toddled to Mothercare in search of that perfect gift. Boy was I disappointed. Plastic, plastic, plastic. I swear practically everything in that shop was covered in plastic or had some sort of plastic accoutrement attached to it. Why would I want to surround a delicate newborn child with this nasty and often toxic substance?

It’s no secret in my household that, to Bron’s increasing terror, I’m getting a bit broody. And it makes me wonder, what on earth am I going to do when/if I am lucky enough to have a baby one day? Can you get baby bottles that aren’t plastic? What did mothers used to do? Just breastfeed until the babies were weaned? What about babies that had trouble breastfeeding? Did they just have to struggle on without? Maybe these questions are terribly naïve, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to research the child rearing methods of South American rainforest tribes, find out how they do it. I don’t think I’ll suggest this to B, though – after a 60 hour labour she might just keel over in shock.

Meanwhile, thank goodness for the local businesses that survive in my local town. There are two wonderful children’s shops full of a more traditional style of toy and mother’s goodies, Laurie’s Toybox and Mums and Little Ones. After considerable deliberation I chose a beautiful, soft rabbit-come-snuggle-blanket for baby E, made by Moulin Roty. No plastic labels, no plastic packaging, just a lovely chunky cardboard presentation box. I hope both B and E like it; I quite fancy one for myself.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bron Gets the Message?

‘I bought this entirely based on it’s packaging,’ Bron tells me, holding up a six pack of beer.

Yes! I think. Does this mean he’s finally starting to get the idea?

‘Well, and because they were cheap,’ he adds.

Ok, I guess that was inevitable, but at least he still chose the plastic-free ones. He goes on to tell me he had three options, going by the price: a four pack of cans, which were held together with those horrid plastic rings that are always pictured in the news getting wrapped around some poor creature’s neck. Or there was another brand, which was entirely cased in plastic and so even worse.

So, congratulations to the company whose beer comes in green glass bottles, the pack held together by cardboard. And congratulations to Bron for thinking through his options and actually going for the plastic-free choice. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

To Graze or not to Graze

I am addicted to Graze. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. I’d like to think it’s more of a good thing, but…

What is Graze?
Before I get to that ‘but’, for anyone who has never heard of Graze, go and take a look now. Graze describes itself as ‘healthy eating by post’. I describe it as yummy.

Each week my graze box arrives through the door. Four little pockets of yummy goodness, from olives to nuts, to sultanas, to fruit. No artificial colourings, flavourings, or preservatives. The idea is that by quietly grazing on natural foods that release their energy slowly, the body’s blood sugar levels are kept at a more constant and stable level, rather than the see-saw effect that eating one big lunch of processed foods has. This is better for my body, better for my energy levels, and better for my ability to concentrate on whatever task I have in hand. It stops me from running after that chocolate bar for a late afternoon boost. This can only be a good thing.

Graze Plastic
But – yes, here is the but – the little pockets that hold all this tasty goodness are, you guessed it, plastic. As plastic goes, it’s quite a good kind of plastic, though. At least, that’s what one side of my brain is telling me – the other side is yelling at me that there is no such thing as good plastic. And this is something that I’ve been struggling with quite a lot recently: where is that line between what is acceptable and what isn’t?

The plastic in the Graze boxes is 80% recycled, and they claim it can be recycled again. I have been washing out the little tubs and putting them out for the weekly recycling collection, but do they actually get recycled at the other end or do they wind up in the reject pile? Saying they can be recycled doesn’t necessarily mean they will be. But I also feel that it’s good to support companies that have such careful and ethical packaging policies – and Graze really are trying, it’s just that they still have to work within the copious food hygiene laws and restrictions.

To Graze or not to Graze?
The plastic pockets are housed in a plain cardboard box which is made from sustainable forests and is completely biodegradable and recyclable. There’s no fancy artwork or clever gimmicks; what you see is what you get, and there is something inherently beautiful in that. But plastic is plastic and this experiment is supposed to be about living without plastic, not talking myself into it, or into ‘good’ kinds of plastic.

Perhaps the real question is, do I really need Graze? I survived without it before so I’m sure I can do again. I just have to persuade my fingers to click on that little ‘cancel delivery’ button.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Little Things

One of the many interesting things about trying to live without plastic is the balance of the big plastic things and the little plastic things.

Big things are the everyday things, like not taking plastic bags when I’m out shopping, finding plastic-free food, or shampoo that doesn’t come in a plastic bottle. And in lots of ways they’re easier to solve than the little things. Once I’ve given them up or found an alternative, that’s pretty much it - well, theoretically at least.

The little things are those items that I don’t use very often, or need only occasionally. New knickers, for instance. I have to buy them singly now, rather than in a pack, because packs tend to come in plastic bags. Or they do in Marks and Spencer’s, which is my staple underwear-buying destination.

This week is a typical example of one of the little things. It is portfolio time on my MA course. That means writing up, printing out, and handing in a big chunk of coursework. Said coursework is expected to be presented in a certain way, all of the pages held together in a nice, neat folder. But could I find a cardboard folder for my work? Could I, heck. Or, where I was lucky enough to track one down, they were in a pack of five that’s sealed in plastic, which rather defeated the object of the exercise.

The solution? No folder was the only solution I could find. I resorted to backing the pile of pages with a piece of plain card, threading the pages together with a piece of ribbon. Hopefully my tutors will find it acceptable… I thought ribbon was prettier than string anyway.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Plastic Water

I've just been reading about a group of Japanese scientists who have created 'elastic water'.

Elastic Water?
By mixing a little bit of clay and organic material with water, they found it turns into a sort of jelly - except it's clear and has elastic properties. Weird.

Or Plastic Water?
They say that this elasticky jelly substance could become a long term tool in medical technology, e.g. by helping to keep wounds closed. But, more interestingly, if they increase the water's density, it acts more like a plastic, and has the potential to become the 'eco-plastic' of the future. What do you reckon?

Read the news article about it here: Japanese Scientists Create Elastic Water. Or for those who are more scientifically minded, here is the original report that appeared in Nature.