Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Plastic Mystery

There’s a strange phenomenon sweeping my village.

I am sitting here at the computer looking out at the small estate I live in. It’s a cool day today, the clouds are piling over, I’ve had to bring the washing in for fear of rain, and the leaves of the trees are blowing in the wind. But across the way there is a house with a plastic bag hanging out of each open upstairs window.

Although it’s the first time I’ve noticed it myself, apparently it’s been going on for a while.

‘We went to your house first,’ C tells me as she arrives at a mutual friend’s who has organised a small gathering. She rolls her eyes towards her boyfriend D; clearly the blame for this little error lies with him. ‘Nice house,’ she says. ‘But why do all your neighbours hang plastic bags out their windows?’

This, at the time, was news to me. Obviously I’m incredibly unobservant, though Bron clearly isn’t.

‘I don’t know,’ he tells her. ‘It’s weird isn’t it?’

Weird indeed. One house flying bags on a solo basis would be unusual, but for a whole street to do it? Am I missing something? Why? The only possible explanation I’ve come up with so far is that it’s to deter flies from going in the open windows. Which actually is quite a good idea, but I think perhaps I’d rather have the flies than the unsightly and noisy bag flapping outside my window. Unless there is something particularly dangerous or nasty about Cornish flies that I’m not aware of… But then, another viewpoint would be that at least these houses are reusing their plastic bags for some (useful?) purpose rather than binning them.

And so the phenomenon continues, as I am now a witness. Does anyone have any alternative theories?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Girly Stuff

This is my exciting new purchase. Plastic-free, all natural panty pads. It even says plastic-free on the box. How cool is that?

I’ve been putting off the sanitary pad issue for a while now, partly out of denial, and partly because I thought I was going to have to go the re-useable route. I don’t have any issues with the re-useable route – I did some research into it a little while ago, and there are plenty of options out there, from the Mooncup for those who prefer tampon-type protection, to handmade pads by companies such as Minki and Imse Vimse. S, my eco-knowledgeable MA tutor, even hinted at the sew-your-own option.

There's chlorine in my panty pads?
Why use re-useable or natural pads? Clearly, re-useable means less waste, plastic or otherwise. But while this is obviously a big concern for me, there are other reasons too. Where the typical modern pad is concerned, it all comes down to the chemicals used to make them. And there’re a lot of chemicals.

The main function of sanitary pads is absorbency, and today this is typically achieved through the use of wood pulp. Not any old wood pulp, but chlorine bleached wood pulp.

There’s chlorine in my panty pads? I had no idea. But it gets worse… Think about all those adverts for Always or Bodyform that shout about how their pads are thinner yet more absorbent, so you can feel comfortable doing womanly things such as playing volleyball, or cycling in hot pants and a bikini. How do they make this so? By adding polyacrylate gels. Yes, there’s that word, ‘poly’ – a plastic. In addition to these gels, there’s a leak proof barrier of polyethylene, and even the main outer is composed of polypropylene.

This is a bit scary: I hadn’t realised the pad itself was full of plastic, I was only thinking of the packaging it comes wrapped in.

And the consequences? Other than the environmental concerns – from extraction and processing of the materials, 90% of which are petroleum products, to the problem of disposal – there are health ones. The high level of synthetic materials used causes many women thrush-like irritation, and the chlorine-bleaching of the core produces dioxin as a by-product, a chemical that is linked to cancer, endometriosis, and immune suppression. Yikes, and I’m putting this against one of the most sensitive areas of my body.

In the olden days
I’ve been thinking about what women used for their periods before the advent of the modern sanitary towel. And it is a modern thing, especially as far as the plastic content is concerned, which has only come into use in the last twenty-odd years, well within my lifetime. Rags seems to be the general answer, which basically brings me back to the suggestion of making my own pads.

I guess the modern pad is a reflection of modern life and, to an extent, the emancipation of women. Women have both the right and the ability to do everything men can do, and the tampon or panty pad helps us to see this through. Before they were around, women often had to remove themselves from society during their period, whether out of hygiene or because of their culture. And still do today in some parts of the world.

So panty pads are a good thing; they enable me to live an active life. But there’s no reason why they have to poison me or the environment in the meantime.

Me and mine
Why did I put off changing my sanitary towels for so long? Firstly, until I sat down to write this entry, I hadn’t realised how bad my ‘normal’ sanitary towels were. Secondly because – as always – I was put off by the cost of re-useable pads. I know it’s a one off cost so once you’ve got a set, that’s that, at least for a while, but to buy enough to get me through a period without having to wash them every single day is going to set me back in the region of £50. I know it makes more sense in the long-run to make this investment, but that half of my brain has trouble computing with the part that says, ‘But it’s £50!’

So, when I visited my eco-hippy friends C&D a couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany:

‘D, what do you use for your period?’ I asked.

‘Natural pads,’ she said, rummaging in the corner of the room for a moment before reappearing with a box of Natracare. ‘It’s better if you don’t use tampons,’ she says. ‘And you should never use branded pads because of the blue stuff,’ referring to the colour the polyacrylate gels give the liners.

Well, that told me. And I think it’ll change my life. These new Natracare pads are so soft and comfortable I keep forgetting I’m even wearing them. Ironically, this makes them even more successful at female emancipation than the typical brands. Ultimately, my plan is still to go the re-useable route, but at least for now I’m not putting any plastic in the bin.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


One of the first things I gave up when I decided to try and reduce the plastic in my life was yogurt.

When I was little I never even liked yogurt, but it had gradually become a staple in my life with Bron, from the Muller Stars I had in my lunch box at work, to the tubs of natural yogurt we kept at home for making smoothies or cooling all the hot curries we used to eat. Surprisingly, though, it quickly became something we just didn't buy anymore, and didn't look to buy either, once the decision had been made.

And then this week I found these little yogurt treats in cute glass jars. Delicious too! Thank you Loseley.

The French Method
A couple of summers ago, Bron and I took a trip to Carcasonne in the south of France. We went with our friend M to help her look after another friend's backpacker's lodge for the week - not that Bron and I helped all that much in the end, choosing to beome paying guests and sleep in a wonderful log cabin rather than the dank basement provided for volunteers.

It was a wonderful holiday, beautiful weather, beautiful countryside, and delicious food. One of the things that struck me most, though, was the array of little glass jars in the French supermarkets. Where in England you would see shelves of plastic pots, the French use glass. Yogurt, puddings, fresh juice: all in glass. Easily cleaned, easily recycled, and easily reused. The lodge where we stayed, Sid's Mums, had shelves of empties of these pots in the kitchen for guests to use as drinking glasses; and use them we did.

So I was pretty excited when I found glass-potted yogurts tucked away in Cornwall. Bron seemed a little bewildered by my high levels of enthusiasm when I produced these yummy little pots from my shopping bag, though obviously he didn't have any qualms about eating them. And now the jars are washed out and sitting in the kitchen cupboard ready for their next calling. There is just one little catch: although the lids were foil, they were sealed with a small amount of tear-off plastic. Presumably this is to prevent tampering, etc, though I do wonder how necessary it is given that 'normal', plastic pots of yogurt don't require them. Besides, if the French can do it, why can't we?

The Home Method
Of course, I could always make my own yogurt at home if I wanted to. It would be fun to try one day, but for this weekend at least I'm going to be lazy, sit back and enjoy the spring sunshine.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Do I Feel Proud?

After spending my week cooped up in front of the computer preparing various pieces of coursework for my MA, last weekend I decided it was time to do some baking. I was dreaming of cake.

Just one problem: no baking ingredients! So I was a bad girl and ran off to the local Morrison’s supermarket. It was unsightly and it was heaving with people. But I still came out feeling rather proud of myself. Why? Because out of the trolley full of goods I wound up buying, only two of them included any form of plastic. And I’m not just talking plastic containers or bottles, there were no plastic lids on glass jars, and no plastic film sealing things up tight.

I bought foil trays rather than plastic pouches of cat food – I do try to buy the foil trays whenever I can, but when they’re full price and the pouches are on offer, it can be hard to turn down the saving. I bought some tinned tomatoes, some tins of coconut milk, some beer. And I went for the organic option wherever I could too: organic flour, organic squash, organic chicken for Bron.

So what were my two failures? Well, the chicken, unfortunately. But I haven’t yet found a way to get fresh meat and fish that doesn’t involve plastic, and I can’t imagine ever being able to persuade Bron to go veggie like me. He is a carnivore through and through.

Secondly, a little bag of mixed nuts – I know, I know, far from a necessity, but the cake recipe called for them, and as it was a new recipe I didn’t know whether it work without them. It would’ve, but hey, I know that for the future now. The cake was yummy, and I still feel proud.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Food for Thought

Last night while I was watching T.V. – or rather skipping up and down the channels trying to convince myself that at least something was worth watching (it wasn’t) – I came across a new advert for Kenco coffee.

‘We tried 100% less,’ the crooning voice of Joanna Lumley says, to the accompaniment of pictures of people walking around trying to carry coffee granules in their hands, their bags, their bras.

‘But in the end we settled for 97% less.’

97% less. That’s not bad, now, is it? And how have they done this? With the new ‘eco-refill’ of course. Yes, I now have the option of buying my coffee in a re-sealable plastic pouch instead of a glass jar. So this is a good thing, right? Of course it’s a good thing; thinking carefully about and reducing packaging is always a good thing.

But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. The type of plastic this pouch is made from isn’t currently recyclable in the UK.

Defining waste reduction
Waste is measured in tonnage, so when it comes to rethinking packaging many companies focus purely on this aspect, the weight. And the problem with this is that plastic is almost always lighter than any other form of packaging material, which is one of the reasons why so much of our food is packaged in plastic today. But of course this fails to account for the fact that plastic is much, much harder to get rid of than most other forms of packaging. In which case, how helpful is this singular approach?

The Waste and Resources Action Programme, ‘WRAP’, launched phase 1 of the Courtauld Commitment in 2005, ‘looking at new solutions and technologies so that less food, products and packaging ends up as household waste’. They’ve made a lot of progress, which anyone can read about on their website in this series of case studies. Retailers are making boxes and bottles smaller, reducing the thickness of glass, film and aluminium, switching from bottles to bags and plastic trays to film. And reducing packaging in this way has other environmental benefits too: making the packaging uses less energy and fewer resources, plus less carbon emissions when delivering the finished products to the stores.

But then there’s the plastic issue. Does swapping from a glass bottle that can be recycled anywhere in the country, to a plastic bottle that can’t be recycled reduce waste? Working on the basis that everyone does recycle everything they can - ok, I know I’m dreaming here and it’s not the case, but it should be the end plan, shouldn’t it? Well, working on the basis that maybe, one day, this will be the case – the glass bottle won’t be waste because it’ll be recycled, but the plastic jar or pouch will be, because it’s much harder to recycle.

Thumbs up
I give my thumbs up to Quality Street. First, they reduced the size of their tins enough to save 237 tonnes of steel a year. And then they made the individual sweet wrapper compostable. Genius! And it's good for me because now I can go out and buy some Quality Street. Yummy!

Thumbs up too to Jacob’s cheese biscuits. They’ve switched from a non-recyclable plastic tub to a 100% recyclable cardboard box for their big selection pack, replaced the inner tray with one that is recyclable, and introduced non polycoated cardboard for other products in the range.

Celebrations, though, I’m not so sure about. They’ve switched from a tin to a plastic tub for their chocolates. Ok, they’ve rather cleverly made the tub dishwasher, microwave, and freezer proof, but still at the end of its life it’ll wind up in the landfill rather than going to a scrap metal agent. And, while they’ve reduced their transport packaging by 87% by replacing corrugated card with shrink wrap, the shrink wrap can’t be reused or recycled after use.

The counter argument

Kenco supports its eco-refill pouch by reminding it’s users that the lid on the old glass jars couldn’t be widely recycled either - the new packaging weighs less than the former lid did, so the eco-refill does mean less waste going to landfill. Secondly, they remind us that 40% of glass doesn’t get recycled anyway. And third, Kenco has partnered with a company that can recycle the pouches – send them three or more empty pouches and they’ll make a stunning, Kenco incorporated notebook, pencil case or umbrella for you.

So they have thought it all through quite carefully. But I wonder what the other options are? Creating a lightweight lid for the jar that can be recycled? Reducing the thickness of the jar to reduce its weight, like the Co-operative have with their own-brand ales and spirits? I wonder how many people are going to save up their refill pouches and post them off? How many are going to want a Kenco-branded umbrella or two?

Food for thought
Maybe I’m a cynic. Ok, I am a cynic. But I will re-iterate my earlier statement: reducing packaging is a good thing, and should always be a good thing. But maybe there are good ways and not-so-good ways to go about it. Balance is a word that comes to mind - but is it right to settle for the lesser evil? Why not go for perfect first time out? Maybe when it comes to packaging there is no such thing as perfect.