Monthly Archives: September 2014

Plastic, plastic everywhere or saving the world one less bottle at a time.

One of my readers has asked about how we manage waste when we travel. I have to say it isn’t easy, especially when we travel long distances at times for our work. At the moment, I am on leave and on the other side of the country in Perth.  I have discovered that travelling without encountering truckloads of plastic is almost impossible.

When we move around the region we work in, we take cornstarch cups to use for coffee, can pack our own snacks and food, and use our stainless drink bottles. We carry cloth serviettes, enamel milkshake cups and glass straws..

Travel ling by air, however, is a very different proposition. I recently travelled to Perth to visit my daughter and only granddaughter. I rarely see them in the flesh, and am visiting here for a week. Visiting them is a family priority, and I try and work out ways I can minimise the impact of flying.

The first issue I encountered was the amount of plastic in a meal on a plane, and all single use. Some of it looked like cornstarch plastic to me, but I still can’t reconcile all the intensive use of resources producing my cutlery would have meant. And it was intended as a one off use, not for washing and redeployment in another meal. Apparently Qantas recycle and wash their plastic cutlery on international flights, but not domestic.  Ultimately, it is doomed to end up in landfill.

On past flights we have kept and reused the plastic cutlery in our picnic set and to take travelling around the mid north coast, but still the waste worries me, and we have accumulated a lot of plastic cutlery! But it bothered me much more this time. As my level of awareness of the real issues surrounding plastic rises, so does my guilt factor. After all, this was all invented to support a lifestyle that does not tolerate inconvenience well.

I  took my own stainless steel water bottle, and cornstarch coffee cup. As a celiac, I brought my own snacks. But my meal came in an aluminium foil tray with plastic cutlery, cup and a plastic water bottle. Individual muffins, cakes, crackers and other snacky things were all in plastic packaging. The headsets to use the in flight entertainment system were also wrapped in plastic.

Apparently there are around 93,000 commercial flights each day, and at any given moment, half a million people are in the air. That’s an awful lot of waste. http://www.flixxy.com/scheduled-airline-flights-worldwide.htm shows you a display of the flights each day across the world.

We have been trying to cut down our flying time (it is a major CO2 emitter) but there is no other cheap and efficient waste of accessing Perth from where we live. We buy carbon offsets and just hope they are genuine.

Our world has become very reliant on single use plastic utensils, wrapping and containers. It is very reliant on single serves wrapped in plastic, and plastic packaging around our food and everyday items.

While cheap plastics have probably revolutionised various sectors such as medicine in a good way, by ensuring sterility and infection control, it is also true that commonly available plastic has encouraged the people of our planet to expect and indeed, demand, a culture of convenient and disposable plastic. Little or no thought is given to how many resources are needed to produce it, and to the damage it may cause when it is disposed of. We appear to be addicted to cheap, disposable, one-use plastic, and do not stop to think of the resources that went into making it. Many of us may not be aware that plastic takes literally hundreds of years to break down, and then it is into tiny particles that are almost indestructible. It is somewhat ironic that goods which are designed for one-off use and to be completely disposable are going to stay around in our environment for a very long time, wreaking havoc wherever they land in the sea or waterways or where animals mistake them for food.  Plastic needs to be regarded as the limited and indestructible material it really is, and it should be recycled as much as possible or disposed of carefully.

One good example of this is bottled water. According to the website of Cool Australia (http://www.coolaustralia.org/bottled-water-secondary/), Australians spend over $500 million on bottled water annually. The website notes that:

It has to be pumped out of the ground, packaged, transported and chilled before it gets to us. This creates over 60,000 tons of greenhouses gases a year in Australia alone….the manufacture and transport of the plastic bottles for all this water requires over 460,000 barrels of oil. Less than 40% of these bottles are recycled; the balance ends up in landfill or in our waterways…the average Australian drinks 14 litres of bottled water per year [and] Australians buy 118,000 tonnes of plastic drink bottles a year. It takes 8 years to recoup the cost of a bottle of water by refilling the bottle with tap water.

When did we stop drinking water that was free in favour of expensive water in bottles? Why is it now OK to use something once and then throw it away – especially when logically it has to go ‘somewhere’? “Away” may be landfill, or it may be the bush, or roadside, or the sea. Either way, it has not disappeared, it has gone to a place where potentially it can cause even more harm to wildlife, marine life, and to the soil.

I must also just mention the now infamous great plastic garbage patch. According to Wikipedia, “the Great Pacific garbage patch is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N. It extends over an large area, …and has exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.” Discarded plastic waste from various parts of the world end up here, where it breaks down and is easily ingested by marine life and birds, leading to choking, starvation, and death.Plastic garbage is swimming on the water surface

Many people treat us as if we have moonstruck madness in our bid to live a live with far less plastic. Educating people about why this is indeed a good idea can be a complicated process.

Replacing one use plastic does have its challenges. When we travel, we carry stainless steel drinking bottles, use cornstarch coffee cups, and have a set of sandwich pockets which eliminates the need for plastic bags and cling wrap so we can eat our own food instead of take away.  We carry reusable glass straws with us to use for smoothies, ice coffees and milkshakes purchased as we move around for our work – and this has led to some quite interesting conversations when people are curious as to why we have glass straws. Glass-Dharma-SE-in-glass-LR-e1352174683892

We buy things in bulk from our health food shop, and make our own bread and biscuits to eliminate commercial plastic-wrapped biscuits, etc. We have replaced cling wrap in the kitchen with a stylish set of different sized “mob caps” for use in covering dishes in both fridge and microwave (from 4MyEarth.com). Our cats are feed fresh mince with appropriate nutritional additives, purchased in our own containers from the health food shop. We make our own toothpaste. I buy Lush’s solid shampoo and conditioner bars that come wrapped in recycled paper, and make my own washing detergent or use fair-trade soap nuts.

4MyEarth food covers.

Setting this up does take some time and money initially, and one does need to be very intentional about it. But we have very quickly got used to this way of life, and to using our various reusable containers. We also do find at times when we are travelling for work that avoiding disposable plastic all the time is not possible, and we accept that. We accept that we will be offered various plastic items by family and friends and co-workers, and we do not lecture them, as research has shown this is not going to change their minds.

Susan Freinkel in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, offers some observations about plastic use we that we should be taking seriously. Our world has apparently produced nearly as much plastic in the last ten years as for most of the last century. She notes that in the space of one generation, the average American has moved from consuming around 13kg of plastic a year to ten times that. In Australia, most of us use around half that amount.

Freinkel also notes that because of the amount of plastic in our society and our food chain, most of us are “just a little plastic now”. “Just as plastics changed the essential texture of modern life, so they are altering the basic chemistry of our bodies,” she says in her book.

It is nigh impossible to live what we understand to be a normal life in the Western world and avoid all plastic. Even if we avoid all packaged food and goods that come in plastic, for most of us there remains essential items we need for everyday life and work, such as telephones, plastic banking cards and electronic devices such as computers and tablets. I also require daily medication, and that is all packaged in plastic.

But we can be much more intentional about how much plastic we can accept in our lives. We can use reusable items such as steel water bottles, we can refuse to buy or accept one-use plastic items, we can write to manufactures and companies to request they use different packaging. We can rediscover the delights of making fresh homemade biscuits and bread. We can consciously commit to recycling our plastic waste. Though at times it seems like we are drowning in an endless array of convenient, plastic wrapped consumer goods, every plastic bag we refuse, every bottled drink we don’t buy, and every take away coffee we purchase in a reusable cup does make a difference.

Such individual actions do have power. They are a catalyst for changing our habits and our thinking. They help make us more aware of our environment, and of the resources required to sustain what is basically an unsustainable way of living. And larger entities are also taking up the challenge. The southern Highland town of Bundanoon has gone plastic bottle free (http://www.news.com.au/national/nsw-town-of-bundanoon-votes-to-ban-bottled-water/story-e6frfkp9-1225747578818). Macquarie University in Sydney is working towards a plastic bottle-free campus (http://mq.edu.au/about_us/strategy_and_initiatives/sustainability/what_is_happening_now/plastic_bottles_on_campus/ ).

If you want more incentive, think of the money you will also save by not buying bottled water  or drink or lots of takeaway or convenience food.

It is important to remember that we can positively impact the future well-being of our planet. We can demonstrate responsible buying habits and dispose of our waste thoughtfully. And just maybe, we will cause a quiet reduced plastic revolution among our friends, family and work colleagues.

garbage patch bottle tops

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Eating local and why we give thanks for the Black Duck Brewery

sustainability image 6 It is time to evaluate how we are travelling with some of our rules of the household. It is one thing to devise such things, and quite another to actually carry them out. We have found some easy, and we have compromised on others for a variety of reasons. Some, like achieving around 80% self sustainability in fruit and vegetables from our garden, is still a work in progress, especially as we are only just coming into spring now. But we will probably get there with this one, and we have plentiful green vegetables and root crops like sweet potato, Yukon and Jerusalem artichokes still available. Coupled with eggs from the household chickens, and the mountain of preserved citrus we have, we could conceivably feed ourselves a lean albeit monotonous meal once or twice daily.

The rule about purchasing food grown within 3 hours of where we live, with Fairtrade exceptions, has been challenging, though not outrageously so. We do continue to support our local farmers via our monthly markets & other local outlets. But we have found that we have persuaded to make some exceptions given the amount of produce we have grown. For example, we had a huge surfeit of citrus fruit. We squeezed it into juice, and decided to turn a lot of it into jam, cordial and marmalade. But that takes sugar. And we are not in the cane fields here in the mid north coast. Our original thought had been to replace sugar in our cooking with local honey. This is certainly possible for some things, but trickier with others, and quite expensive if one doesn’t own hives and one has the equivalent of a small mountain of citrus fruit. So given the several odd tonnes of oranges, mandarins, lemons and other citrusy odds and sods we had, we reverted to making jam with Bundaberg sugar, an Australian grown and processed (though not owned) product from sunny Queensland. The Australian ethical consumer guide gives it a grey tick. We have bartered it for other local produce, have given some away and have used many jars of the resulting jam, and have many still in the cupboard, so it seems like a fair deal. If we ever get our own honey bee hives (we only keep native bees), we will revisit the honey and jam-making scenario again.

The other big issue was grains, as we are not in the wheat or grain belt here in the mid north coast either. I had not really thought about how much our cooking relied on little bits of flour (or even big bits of flour) and rice and pasta. There was the option of turning paleo, but paleo cooking relies on some quite exotic ingredients, such as coconut oil and flour which seems to be in everything. We could have just cut grains out completely, but that meant a bread, biscuit, pancake and porridge free existence. To complicate things, I am a celiac. So we have decided to order a 12 kilo bag of Australian organic wheat flour for John, and I am making my own gluten-free flour using various Australian grains, seeds and legumes purchased in bulk (no packaging) from the local health food shop. We make our own breads, crackers and porridges from these, and are supporting small scale Australian organic farmers. It seems like a reasonable compromise, though it has given me moments of unease, as it wasn’t what I originally had in mind. But wimpy or not, I am not ready to give up grains and grasses. Surprisingly, we had previously discovered a small organic rice farm actually within the three hour zone. But the crop does not appear to be ready for sale this year, though I still have half a jar of it in the cupboard from last year. And if I want pasta, I am going to have to learn how to make it, not easy using gluten free flour. At the moment I am doing without.

Sticking to buying no packaged food or highly processed food has proved to be easier. Most packaged stuff we had bought originally was either gluten free stuff, like bread, yoghurt or cereals or porridges, or oil. We are either making our own or buying these in bulk from the health food shop. We are also making our own cat food, using fresh mince purchased locally from locally grown animals in containers supplied by us. Pets and sustainability is a whole other topic, which I will write about in another blog.

It should be clear that buying food in bulk in our own containers to avoid packaging has not been an issue for us. We are extremely fortunate to have an excellent health food shop here where we can do this, and the staff have been very obliging in looking up the place of origin for us of their various products. All their products are organic, but not all are Australian so one has to ask. I will talk about why we prefer to use food produced chemical-free in another blog. The owner also tries to source her fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers, so mostly they are from within our three hour limit. We can’t avoid packaging on meat, which our beef and pig farmers are obliged to package in plastic in order to meet regulations for sale. While we aren’t looking to generate more plastic waste, this is a compromise we were prepared to make, as small organic free range farmers would soon be out of business without local support. We also support the local biodynamic cheese maker, who sells us wedges of Swiss cut from large wheels, and which he wraps in paper. When he is waiting for his cheeses to mature, there is a local cheese factory, though their cheeses come wrapped in plastic – to the great disgust of the biodynamic cheese man, who says no cheese should ever be subjected to plastic as it needs to breathe.

One unexpected piece of pain for John was dried fruit, which he is very fond of. He has run out of raisins, sultanas and currants. None of these are local, and the organic raisins at the health food shop were from Argentina. So no dried fruit for John on this occasion. This week though, they got in some Queensland ginger from a small farm, and I relented and we got that. We then also added some recently arrived apricots from a small organic South Australian farm that the proprietor waved at us with the assurance the famers needed the support of people like us to make a living. Well, it sounded like a noble cause at the time. We are rationing them as small delicious snacks. And also fortunately for John, the local macadamia farm makes macadamia butter. So his predilection for peanut butter at least has a worthy substitute. It does however, come packaged in plastic. So there is always a catch.

The other unnecessary food (or beverage) item in our house was beer. The original idea was John was going to brew his own, and he has a brewing kit and some different brews to make. He never quite got there, but discovered the Black Duck micro brewery in Port Macquarie, which has around eight different beers. When we visit the doctor or go for meetings in Port, we have been known to drop by the Black Duck brewery with our boxes which the owner fills with various beers in exchange for filthy lucre. We can recycle the bottles and lids.

It has also been easy to support Fairtrade products, which aim to raise poor communities out of poverty. We buy limited purchases of coffee, coconut products, and tea. Coffee is actually grown at the top of our three hour region, so we can also buy that here in the health food shop. We also buy fair-trade castile soap, which is one of our stock standard cleaning products.

So far the exercise has raised serious questions for us as to what we are prepared to do without. In Australia, most of us are used to a very varied diet, much of which is not essential for life. While all of the stuff we eat is seasonable and Australia, we have easily found what look like reasons to break our three hour limit for food. While we might be supporting a small organic South Australian fruit grower, are we actually demonstrating local community resilience traits by eating their fruit? And on the issue of beer, it is hardly essential to life, and the grains used in its production could presumably be used for food. It is though, an ancient tradition, originating in ancient Egypt where they apparently brewed a variety of excellent beers. Along with wine (which I am very allergic to) it features in communal celebrations and is part of human conviviality and hospitality. Does that make it OK then, to drink the local brewer’s beer, knowing that he probably used non local barley, malt, hops and some imported stuff to make the product?

I am still pondering these questions. I feel like I haven’t really been prepared to grasp the full extent of this project yet. How much am I really prepared to forego for the good of the planet? How much should I support local food growers in spite of the required plastic packaging? How are we navigate the complexities of modern life that we have grown used to, and that we take for granted, yet live more sustainably and simply? I haven’t really arrived at many good and definitive answers yet, with what should be a challenge for all of us. But we hope to try and keep minimising our impact so that those who come after us may also enjoy a similar world to the one we currently have.