How to Live a Low Plastic Life

recycling-symbols

So, we’re more than halfway through the year and this week I put my black bin out to be emptied again (it’s been a few months). Yet again it’s mostly filled with plastic packaging, a couple of disposable razors, a toothbrush and the pesky toothpaste and hand cream tubes that for years I thought I could recycle in my household bin collection, but I’ve now discovered are only for for landfill. (Note to self, learn what all those recycle logos on products actually mean). But, once again the main culprit is plastic food bags and wrap that cannot go in my household recycling.

My bin contents.jpg

I’ve realised that the “plastic free” ambition is not achievable and I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. Instead, just as we set out to go low carbon in 2006 (and cut out CO2 emissions by half) we’re going low plastic. Much as I love scrolling though the pristine while shelves of the “zero wasters” on Instagram, their kilner jars filled with bulk buy dried goods, their shiny bathrooms equipped with safety razors and shampoo bars, I just find their so called solutions just cause a whole heap of new headaches for me.

Take the safety razor for example. I’ve bought my fair share of disposable razors over the years and considered switching to a safety razor with steel blades, but as the zero waste bloggers are starting to discover, those pesky steel blades are darned awkward to recycle. They can’t be tossed in your household metal recycling (and despite the tips and “zero waste hacks” you might read on Instagram, never, ever just fill a steel food can with used blades and throw it in your household recycling). Apart from the safety issues when your recycling is hand sorted at your local MRF, they can cause all kinds of problems to the machinery. There’s a really useful piece on how to dispose of razor blades on this American website. I asked the friendly guys at my local recycling centre if they would take them in the general metal collection bins and they said no, but suggested I take it up with my local Council, which I will do.

But, I have given up disposable razors. I’ve switched to a combination of waxing and using an epilator. Yes, the epilator is plastic, but over it’s lifetime that’s a lot less non recycleable plastic than the razors and my model seems to go several weeks without needing to be recharged. Lucy Siegle (who incidentally has a new book out)*, has a few suggestions in the old post from the Guardian, answering a reader’s questions “What is the most eco – friendly method of hair removal”

I’ve also discovered that some of the larger supermarkets will recycle the thin, stretchy film and food bags that I end up with after an Ocado delivery. Thanks to Recycle Now and Karen Cannard who writes the Rubbish Diet blog, for that info. So now I’ve started saving up the plastic bags for when I find out which of my local supermarkets offers this service. When I go to the supermarket myself, or to the greengrocers, I’m still using a combination of old plastic food bags and cotton mesh bags. No-one seems to comment any more.

This just leaves the problem of the toothbrush and toothpaste. I have lots of issues with my teeth and I’m reluctant to give up my toothpaste for sensitive teeth. Instead, I’m writing to the company that make sit on a regular basis to ask when they’ll switch back to a metal tube. I switched to a wooden toothbrush, but I still have dozens of plastic ones that have been saved up for years as cleaning tools and every now and again one of them finds it’s way into the rubbish.

I think a Low Plastic Life, is definitely the way forward for us. I can’t see a time when we’ll ever be completely zero plastic – it’s far too useful – but using it wisely and thinking of it a valuable  resource  that is “too precious to throw away” has made me think differently about our buying habits in general.

I’d love to know if any of you have adjusted your plastic buying habits, the wins, the epic fails and the tips you’d love to share. The “Five on Friday” format is changing, so instead of a list of links and snippets I’ve read or watched I’m going to start sharing ideas and some of our simple swaps to help you choose a low plastic life. In September I’ll be showing you how we made the move to a “low plastic bedroom”, so if that’s got your wondering, check back on the first Friday in September for the first in my new series and lots more new content on Baking and Making.

Until then I’m taking a short break for August!

  • I’ll be reviewing this new book soon.

 

 

Five on Friday: From the Archives

coffee magazine

I often feel that blog posts get “lost in the ether”, read and then forgotten. So this week I’m rounding up a few of my ancient posts. The photography might be a ropey, but hey ho – we’re not all amazing photographers!

  1. This hand salve recipe from 2012 (originally published in 2009) is still a regular make (I’m toying with the idea of doing some step by step photos on Instagram next time I make this, there are only so many times I can repost this with an apology for the pictures!).
  2. It’s not too late to make a batch of rhubarb and ginger gin (although I  started picking damsons today, so that means a batch of Damson Gin in time for Christmas).
  3. I still think this post on reality vs social media reality is relevant. At the moment it seem that everyone I follow on Instagram is talking about their “authentic self” (whatever that means). The truth is, we all present a version of ourselves online, whether it’s editing out the toys from a beauty shot of our living room or adding a little bit of photo shop magic to an almost, but not  quite decent photo of ourselves. I know I’m guilty of a bit of tidying up before I grab my camera – who wants to see a pile of dirty dishes?
  4. I wore my Granny Tank a lot on holiday this year, so for those of you who have mastered a few crochet basics, here’s how to make your own. Even though this photos “shows off my curves” with a little bit too much honesty, I still love it (and done day I’ll share the out takes – the photos Mr T too that didn’t make it to print).
  5. Finally, a recipe for you. We’re eating lots of salads and dips at the moment and these naan breads are perfect for mopping up.

So there you go, five quick reads for the weekend. What am I reading? Well, mostly double glazing brochures and indulging in Diana Henry’s wonderful new book “How to Eat a Peach”  – I’ve got the hardback version, but that soft faux flock cover sets my teeth on edge – so this weekend I’ll be going “old school” and wrapping it in brown paper!

Photo credit:

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Nature Nurtures Me

nurtured by nature.jpgWhen I was a child, my dad would often disappear for walks. occasionally he’d take us with him, point out grebes swimming on the river, name the trees and the wild flowers or explain why we shouldn’t pick the hogweed*. Mostly he walked in silence, and it’s only now I’m a grown up that I understand his need to be outdoors.

You see, nature nurtures us. In the late 1980’s, I worked in a school in the suburbs of Manchester, it had a stream running through the grounds and some of our more enlightened staff knew that making sure our “troubled children” had access to that space, to “dip” in the pond, discover pond skaters, damselflies and grubs made life easier in the classroom. Those kids were calmer, more able to sit and listen. As teachers, we noticed a difference too, we talked about “clearing away the cobwebs” or how lovely it was to breather fresh air. Truth be told, we dragged those kids outside as much for our own well being as theirs! Thirty years ago it wasn’t called “Forest School” or the “outdoor classroom”, it was just informal access to nature  and we knew the benefits without mountains of research papers to tell us why access to the outdoors mattered. Everyone looked forward to dry days when we could step outside and weave an appreciation of nature into the curriculum – and if you are sceptical of the effect of nature on mood and behaviour, visit any school playground on a windy day and take note of how it affects the children – our dinner ladies* used to  dread windy lunch times!

on the rocks

Whilst we were encouraging those kids to spend time outside, feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their faces, the recognition that being outdoors could improve well being was being accepted across the world. In Japan, the concept known as  “Shinrin – Yoku” (sometimes called “forest bathing” )was gathering momentum. The healing power of being outdoors was accepted as a legitimate course of treatment. Even the NHS implemented changes to hospital design and organisation after published research that showed patients with beds near the window healed faster and went home sooner! (Roger Ulrich‘s research was first published in 1984 and was considered ground breaking at the time).*

Of course, now the media have embraced this concept as “new” and innovative and now we all read constantly that being outdoors is good for the soul as this piece in the Guardian shows, Author and nature lover Emma Mitchell has embraced the idea of being outdoors as a strategy to ensure her mental well being . If you’re interested, then the nature Fix by Florence Williams is definitely worth a read. It’s a fascinating account and exploration of the healing possibilities of nature.

Even the smallest access to green space ( or just being able to see it through a window) can improve out mental and physical health. Notice how children will press their noses to the window on rainy days, anxious to connect with the outdoors. This need to be in nature is with us from the earliest age. I try to eat my breakfast, or at least gulp a mug of tea in the garden every morning. I think of it as a time to balance myself before the onslaught of social media, emails and deadlines. Even better, if I can squeeze in a walk in the forest or through the woods I know my day will be calmer and more productive.  If you’re interested in reading more about this, then I thoroughly recommend  this article in Business Insider, which lists “12 science backed reasons why spending more time outside is healthy“.

Garden Robin

Spending time outdoors has allowed me to observe nature close up, my photographs of birds, butterflies and garden wildlife are a happy accident of time spent sitting, walking or watching. I know that my mental and physical health improves when I get outside, I notice less pain and inflammation in my joints and I often discover the solution to a problem or difficulty. We need access to sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, so clearly the need to be within nature is built into our DNA?

There still needs to be more willingness to accept the existing evidence that nature heals, and to continue to research the best and most effective ways we can use what we already know. Children cooped up in classrooms, prisoners on almost 24 hour a day “lock down”, patients denied access to the outdoors because health care providers prefer to keep them in their beds “where we can see you” and office workers who lunch at their desks because stepping outside the office is no longer the norm. Everyone can benefit from a change in attitude and policy.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence. Nature nurtures, sustains, revives and inspires us. We should all spend more time outside, every day.

 

*The sap is irritating and can cause a nasty rash – leave it alone!

*During my time as a student Nurse, Ulrich’s research was causing a stir. A new hospital wing was designed around a courtyard, so patients could not only see the gardens, but walk in them through patio doors

*dinner ladies / lunch time supervisors

 

Five on Friday: Beach Reads

a walk on the cliffs

Now that we’re back from our holiday, Mr T and I are planning a few camping trips to explore more of the British coastline. If you’re heading to the beach this summer, here’s a few beach inspired reads that have made me pause for thought this month:

  • I’ve been reading “No More Plastic” by Martin Dorey (who also wrote the fabulous Campervan Cookbook). A practical guide to cutting your plastic use, it’s full of quick, achievable ideas.
  • Not reading, but watching, I caught the first episode of “Beach Live” on BBC4. Presented by Dan Snow, it’s a fascinating journey along the Jurassic coast. Definitely worth looking up on iPlayer.
  • This piece from the NY Times might get you off your lounger and heading off to do a “two minute beach clean”. Do you know what the most often found piece of plastic is on the average beach?
  • I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! No trip to the seaside is complete without a cone of soft, dripping ice cream (or even better, heading home for a bowl of fresh, home made gelato)! This new recipe book from La Grotta ices is full of delicious recipes and flavour combinations. There’s a great review on the Happy Foodie. Written by Kitty Travers, it’s a must for ice cream lovers, check out these “sneak peek” recipes from the book in this Guardian piece.
  • Finally, if you fancy discovering a new beach get away, the Great British Beach Guide is a good place to start.

Enjoy your summer x

Photo credit Rosan Harmens on Unsplash

Recipe: Sticky Stuff Remover

How to remove sticky labels

I make lots of jams, flavoured gins and preserves. That means I’m always scavenging empty bottles and jars to store my produce. Every jar is washed and the original label removed – but sometimes that’s easier said than done! Some labels are so firmly glued on, nothing seems to shift them! You can buy “goo gone”  or “sticky stuff remover” products, and some people swear by WD40, but I wanted to see if I could come up with my own. Usually I scrape off as much of the label as I can, then soak in hot, soapy water. If I’m lucky, the label slides off and doesn’t leave a sticky residue. Occasionally, nothing works and even huge amounts of elbow grease (which, incidentally is the best cleaner available)  won’t shift the darned glue – what do they use to stick those labels?

You can see from the photo below, even my all singing, all dancing recipe won’t work 100% of the time (that clear plastic bottle has defeated me), but most of the bottles are clean and label free. Ready to be filled with lotions, potions and produce from my kitchen garden (look out for my lavender champagne recipe, coming soon).

So, what’s my “secret” recipe? Simple, good old trusty baking soda (also known as bicarbonate of soda)* and vegetable oil! You’ll also need a dash of perseverance and plenty of elbow grease (for the uninitiated, that’s good old fashioned wrist / arm scrubbing action).

Simply mix equal quantities of oil and baking soda in a dish and apply to any remaining glue or label. Leave for up to an hour before scrubbing off with wire wool, an old toothbrush or your favourite eco friendly abrasive cloth (I use the Body Shop hemp body mitts, they are great for household tasks). The baking soda is the star of the show here, the oil just binds it and stops it sliding off the jars and bottles. You can use any oil, some blogs recommend coconut oil, others olive oil*.

how to remove sticky labels the after photo.jpg

Wipe off the oil / baking soda residue and rinse your jars in hot soapy water and leave to dry. Remember they will need to be washed, dried and sterilised before use to avoid risk of contamination.

Once you’ve filled your jars, you’ll need to label them with contents and an ingredients list. The best labels I’ve found for the job come from Eco Craft. They also offer  free pdf templates for their labels, which are very handy and save a lot of time setting up your own.

Not so difficult eh? Like most home made cleaning products and home remedies, the most valuable ingredient is time. I like to keep a jar of baking soda by the sink (clearly labelled), so that I can use it for all kinds of cleaning tasks. It’s great for removing burnt on food from roasting pans, or getting stubborn stains off the coffee maker too.

 

  • Health and safety note: Whenever you’re making your own eco –  friendly products, remember to wear rubber gloves and an apron. The ingredients might be less toxic, but they can still cause irritation and can stain your clothing. Always use clean containers and avoid mixing shop bought cleaners with your home made ones  as chemical reactions can occur. Wash all surfaces and utensils after use.

Five on Friday

elderflowers 2016I thought it was time to resurrect my weekly round up of things I’m reading, watching and listening to. As usual, this is an eclectic mix of things that have caught my attention or made me pause for thought this week. And also a reminder, there are still elderflowers out there, so it’s not too late to make cordial or even  a batch of my Elderflower champagne!

  1. Life on Gartur Stitch Farm. Kat writes a blog and posts photos of life with her family on a semi remote smallholding in Scotland. A dip into her Instagram or blog is always a treat, and this week her sourdough recipe caught my eye. A  good introduction to their everyday life is this post, written back in March. I often think of Kat when I’m gathering food from the hedgerow or folding my sourdough and mulling over the way our lives overlap. She’s also one of the creative team behind The Crochet Project, together with Joanne Scrace they design and publish an inspired and beautiful collection of patterns each season. It’s impossible to pick out a favourite.
  2. Under the Sea. While I was baking earlier this week, I caught the end of The Life Scientific on Radio 4, I was so intrigued, I searched on iplayer to listen again to this interview with Rachel Mills an oceanographer. We know so little about the world of the deep oceans and this insight into exploration, conservation and a woman’s life in science was the best of this week’s radio.
  3. What’s the Beef With Eating Meat? This article written on the Piper’s Farm blog struck a chord with me. Animal welfare, conservation and ecological issues all sit high on my “agenda”, so it was interesting to read this piece   on modern farming written from the farmer’s perspective.
  4. Belgian Beer Culture. I like to listen to Radio 4’s the Food Programme on catch up as we’re so often busy when it’s first broadcast. In this episode Dan Saladino takes us on a  tour of Belgium’s beer and brewing culture. If (like me), your only experience of Belgian beer is a few bottles knocked back on a boozy weekend in Bruges, this will be a revelation. Mr T and I have already pencilled in a weekend to go and explore, armed with this Guide to Belgian Cafe Culture, written by the lovely Regula Ysewijn (who also features in this episode).
  5. A Daily Dose of Robert McFarlane. I still dip into Twitter on a daily basis. All of Robert’s  books are worth a read and his daily posts of lost, overlooked words are always worth checking out. Regular readers might recall this post about my “undersong” which made reference to his book Landmarks.

I told you it was eclectic….

Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

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If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

5 Plastic Free Shop Swaps

plastic free ocado shopBack in January I wrote a post complaining that shopping online was thwarting my attempts to reduce the amount of plastic coming into my home. Several people challenged me to “try harder” and so I’m pretty proud to say that our general household waste bin has only been emptied once since January and the plastics recycling bin has only been emptied twice. In fact, the straight to landfill  “black bin”, the one that just seems to be full of crisp packets, plastic bags from supermarket veg and non recyclable plastic trays was emptied by mistake – only half full, our local refuse collectors thought they were “doing me a favour” by coming down the drive and collecting it on Tuesday. They though we’d forgotten about it and acted out of kindness. So, now the black bin sits empty and I’m darn sure I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

So, what are these simple steps I’ve discovered to maintain my addiction to a weekly online supermarket shop, but still cut my plastic? Here are my top five, in  no particular order.

  1. Choose cardboard over plastic food containers. Barilla pasta comes in cardboard packets, with no plastic liner. There’s a small cello window which can’t be recycled. But it’s easily removed before recycling or composting. I’ve also found several companies sell boxes of risotto rice, our favourite is Riso Gallo carnarolli, which is stocked by Ocado. Just by making these two simple swaps we’ve cut our plastic significantly.  (Gluten free foodies might be interested to know that the Barilla GF pasta is a pretty good substitute, especially for pasta bakes).
  2. Choose jars and tins over packets and pouches. Just about every pulse and vegetable is available in a can or a glass jar. We use lots of “ready to eat” chick peas, kidney beans and veg. Metal, like glass,  is easy to recycle. Look for olive oil in glass bottles instead of plastic and ditch that squeezy ketchup for a good old fashioned bottle ( a long handled spoon or a knife is great for scooping out the last dregs if you forget to store them upside down).
  3. Cardboard cotton buds. I know “that photo” of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud is hard to unsee, but it might surprise you that most of the big brands switched to cardboard cores for their cotton buds some time ago and they’re easy to find in most supermarkets. Remember to bin them (or chuck in the compost) – don’t flush them!
  4. Fruit and veg in plastic trays and poly bags are pretty hard to avoid if you shop online. But at least these organic tomatoes came in a cardboard tray that can be thrown in my compost bin or recycled – I know, the wrapper  is non recyclable in my area, but it’s one less black plastic food tray – so I’m calling that a win. In addition, the bunch of garlic came with a biodegradable label and tie.
  5. Not pictured here, but one of the easiest switches is possibly to ditch those plastic washing pods that laundry detergent manufacturers are so desperate for us all to buy. Like most of us, I was suckered into buying a box of “pods” when they were on special offer. They are very convenient, but I’ve switched back to a bulk box of non bio powder. The cardboard box is easy to compost or recycle. I don’t use fabric conditioner, so there’s been no need to look for an alternative to those plastic bottle or pouches.

These simple swaps have made a huge difference to our plastic waste and to be honest, we’ve not noticed a difference in our spending. We’ve also stopped buying liquid soap for guests. We use bars of “hard soap” and for visitors who don’t like the thought of sharing soap I’ve been refilling the old hand wash dispenser with a home  made version (I’ll share the recipe soon).

I’ve started making a note of the things we were already doing, and which have become second nature. I’m going to start sharing these more regularly.  It’s almost 10 years since the Guardian featured our “Green Lifestyle” . The simple steps we were taking then to reduce our energy consumption, use environmentally friendly cleaning products and cut our waste should have become the norm for all households. It’s a sad  fact that they haven’t. I want to write more posts about the changes we’ve made over the past 20 years, partly to celebrate our achievements, but also to show how easy it can be to shop and live more thoughtfully, yet with little effort. I’m pretty sure we’ve also saved money, but that’s hard to evaluate because I’ve always been parsimonious (posh speak for mean with my money!)

Manufacturers continue to bombard us with adverts for stuff we don’t need to solve problems we never really had in the first place. They play on our feelings of guilt and self esteem (smelly laundry? buy deodorising capsules. Embarassed by bad smells in the bathroom? Squirt your toilet bowl with special potions before you poop and emerge without a red face. And worried about nasty germs? Coat every surface in your house with antibacterial sprays). Just by refusing to buy into their marketing, you’ll save money and reduce your environmental impact.

It’s not easy, I know. But every step  is a step a step in the right direction.  My simple swaps are just the start. We’ve a long road ahead, but at least we’ve begun.

 

Rhubarb and Ginger Gin (a recipe)

peak rhubarb.jpgWe’ve reached “peak rhubarb”, that point in the season when we no longer look forward to a rhubarb crumble, even my favourite rhubarb fool (made with stewed rhubarb whipped into freshly made custard) no longer appeals. But my rhubarb patch is at the top of its game, huge pink stalks appear almost daily. There’s jam of course (rhubarb and ginger is a rather fine jam), but we’ve grown tired of the huge number of jars that lurk in the fridge as we don’t eat enough of the stuff to justify making more than a couple of jars. Cordials are a good option, and for the last few years I have made lots of this for quaffing on summer evenings. A couple of years ago, someone gave me a bottle of Edinburgh Gin’s Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur and that sparked an idea to make my own flavoured gin.

Let’s hope we’re heading into a long, warm summer. The kind where we’ll sit out on the patio or in the park until late in the evening. Sip a cheeky glass of something in good company and spend lazy weekends watching the world go by. That’s my kind of slow summer. But just in case we find ourselves in the middle of a wet August huddled around the BBQ and in need of something to lift our spirits, this gin recipe might be just the thing!

Many of you will be familiar with sloe, damson or strawberry gin. Rhubarb however might be new to you. It’s a great make for summer, quick and incredibly easy. If you make it now, it will be ready to take along to summer BBQs in July and August – much tastier (and a little more original) than a green salad or a bottle of Rose! The sharp notes of ginger don’t play nicely with tonic (at least not in my opinion), so experiment with different mixers or serve over ice – in moderation of course!

You’ll need a large jar with a wide neck, caster sugar, rhubarb (the pinker the better), a small piece of fresh ginger and a bottle of gin (cheap and cheerful, no fancy botanicals necessary). Whenever I make flavoured gin, brandy or vodka, I tend to judge the quantities by eye, but if you stick to proportions of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fruit and 4 parts alcohol that should give a sweet enough concoction. (so for this batch I’m using roughly 250g sugar, 500g rhubarb and 1 litre of gin). Pink rhubarb will impart a pretty colour, while green stalks will produce a more amber colour, either way it tastes delicious.

rhubarb and ginger cordial shot

Roughly chop the rhubarb and slice the ginger thinly (no need to peel),  pop them in your jar and pour on the sugar, stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add your gin and screw the lid on. Leave in a dark, cool place for a week, turning the jar every day so the sugar dissolves. Then leave it alone for two more weeks. Strain through a jelly bag or coffee filter paper. Leave it overnight so that you extract as much gin as possible. Bottle, label and drink neat over ice, diluted with soda or lemonade. Of course, you can leave out the ginger if that thought does nothing for your tastebuds. You could add a vanilla pod instead or just go for straight rhubarb. Just as an aside, in the photo above, the bottle contains rhubarb cordial made with the late summer green rhubarb stalks, while the glass contains an early batch of gin flavoured with the young pink stalks.

For a non alcoholic option, a rhubarb and ginger cordial is a delicious choice. I’ll share some of my favourite fruit cordial recipes here over the summer, but if you can’t wait then you’ll find a great Rhubarb syrup recipe in Wild Cocktails by Lottie Muir, or try Sarah Raven’s Rhubarb Cordial, which you’ll find here. 

Also, it’s not too late to go foraging for elderflowers to make a batch of Elderflower Champagne, you’ll find my recipe by clicking here!

 

How Sustainable is Your Yarn?

20151007_125641I love working with natural fibres, and British wool in particular. I love seeking  out small producers and listening to them share the story of their yarn. Maybe that stems from a childhood spent on the hills and the fells, seeing sheep in their natural environment. I like to think my British wool is a more sustainable purchase. It’s a natural product, available in a myriad of undyed shades and it’s biodegradable. But is there more to this issue of “sustainability” than just sourcing and disposing of the product?

The whole issue of sustainability is complex and fraught with issues that divide as much as they unite those of us who care about the natural world and our fellow humans. This is especially true when it comes to textiles as many of us don’t really consider the manufacture or disposal of our clothes. For knitters, crocheters and many other yarn crafters, the question of sustainable yarn is only just making it’s way into the mainstream debate. And while many of us are proudly carrying our re-usable coffee cups and refusing plastic bags, there is a huge proportion that continue to knit, crochet and craft with plastic yarn without any thought of it’s origins or future environmental impact.

For years now I’ve had to justify why I’m not a fan of man made fibres and prefer to use cotton, linen or wool for my makes and my designs. My  dislike of acrylic yarn isn’t snobbery. I just care about the long term environmental impact of mass produced textiles and yarns. They  use chemicals, oil and energy to an extent  that is not ecologically sustainable. Many are neither recyclable  nor biodegradable and end up in incinerators or landfill sites. The availability of cheap yarn has opened up knitting and crochet for everyone, with little or no consideration of where the yarn comes from, how it’s made or what might happen to our  projects when they reach they end of their natural life (I’m pretty sure most pilled and baggy acrylic sweaters still end up in landfill and oddments and left overs suffer the same fate).

The production of oil-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester requires the mining, refining, and processing of oil. In addition, both man made and natural fibres  use a myriad of toxic additives and colours, as well as massive amounts of energy and water. Many of the chemicals used in the textile industry (such as lead, nickel and formaldehyde) are known to have a negative impact on public health, nature and biodiversity. In addition, many textiles are made in sweatshops  linked to multiple human rights violations, including child labour, sub-minimum wages,and unsafe working conditions.

That all sounds pretty vile and it’s clear that the debate isn’t as cut and dried as man made Vs natural fibres anymore (if it ever was!).

There are no easy choices, and over the years I’ve had to make compromises, requesting “wool rich” yarns for commissions or choosing cotton yarns that might (or might not) have been dyed using harmful chemical in factories that don’t respect their workers  rights. Cotton production is one of the largest industrial consumers of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Contamination of the natural environment and negative impacts on human and animal health are common in cotton growing regions. (You can read more about cotton production on the WWF website if you’re interested).

Then of course, there are yarns made from linen, hemp, bamboo, tencel, recycled polyester and reclaimed fibres. How are we supposed to find our way through the maze of sustainability issues and find a solution that works for us? And, now of course, there is a growing interest in sourcing vegan or cruelty free yarns. Many suppliers sell “vegan” yarn and there are forums and facebook groups dedicated to sharing new discoveries of “cruelty free” yarn. However,  vegan yarns are often  made from nylon or a combination of polymers. Once again this raises the question of “sustainability”.  And, I keep asking myself, is the marine life affected by plastic pollution  of less value than a sheep? But that’s an issue for another day perhaps. There are a number of online retailers selling plant based fibres that have addressed this issue and I’ve included  some of them at the end of this post – they are a great source of information for anyone looking to source non animal fibres – whether that’s for ethical or personal reasons – or maybe you’re just one of the many who find wool, cashmere and alpaca too “scratchy”!

Fortunately, there are a number of yarn companies, shops and small scale suppliers who care about animal welfare, human rights and  the long term sustainability of  their products. Many are offering a choice of fibres which might make us feel a bit better about the impact our craft has on the environment (and our fellow humans). I’ve compiled a short list which you’ll find at the end of this post. It’s not exhaustive (and do let me know if your favourite isn’t listed here). In addition, I would suggest seeking out small batch wool producers or asking where your wool comes from. Visit yarn shows such as Woolfest (held every June in Cumbria) and talk to suppliers about the rearing and shearing of their animals – genuine interest will be meant with genuine enthusiasm and you shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of love and care that goes into that small flock of sheep, alpaca or goats!

When I do use man made fibres I make sure to think of them as long term projects. I use socks with a small nylon content (meant to add strength and durability), I darn the heels and toes and make sure they last. Leftover scraps of yarn are crocheted into baskets and homewares rather than simply being thrown away. I like to think that by the time they are worn out, there may be a way to recycle or reclaim the fibres and put them to another use. I compost left over wool, and cotton fibres are added to my local council’s textile collection for recycling.

As more of us begin to question the environmental and ethical impacts of our yarn choices, we should take some comfort from the wider textile industry, which has been considering these issues for a number of years already.  Many factories now employ “closed loop” manufacturing processes which reduce pollution, recycle water and reduce exposure of factory workers to harmful chemicals. Plastic manufacturers are being forced to consider alternatives to plastics made from oil and are investing in ways to reclaim post consumer waste, one of the most exciting I’ve come across is  Econyl (use by Finisterre in its swimwear ranges for a few years now), made from 100% post consumer waste nylon. There’s no doubt that regenerating existing nylon and man made fibres is preferable to using new. In the long term, we might see more regenerated yarns available for sale to knitters and crafters (some are mentioned in the list that follows). Perhaps we’ll come to see sustainability as more than just a man made Vs natural fibres debate, but for now my choice for personal projects will still be linen, organic cotton or wool  sourced in the UK from small scale producers and companies that care about the provenance of their raw materials.

Your version of what is sustainable might differ from mine, that’s OK. All I’m asking is that we start to consider the human and environmental impacts of our purchases and ask questions about their manufacture and disposal. I’m interested to know how a love and respect for the natural world sits with our constant cravings for quick, easy and convenient choices. I was raised to love nature, to feel a sense of awe and wonder when I climb a mountain or swim in the sea. It’s hard to feel that way when faced with images of towering landfill, incinerator chimneys or beaches scattered with rubbish washed in with the tide.

Shopping online? Try these:

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London shop Knit with Attitude prides itself on sourcing and supplying a wide range of ethical and sustainable yarn, check out their current stock online or in their bricks and mortar shop.

New to me (but not so new to the scene), online shop  Yarn Yarn sells ethically sourced natural fibres (many of them organic). Many have a price tag that won’t make your eyes water!

Wool and the Gang sell FSC certified Tencel yarn (Tina Tape)  and now have a scheme which donates to Friends of the Earth every time you buy a ball of their Heal  the Wool

Katia Yarns sell a blend of cotton and recycled polyester, which has attracted a lot of interest among yarn enthusiasts. They have also launched “Earth” a blend of merino wool and polyester sourced from recycled PET bottles. These are in addition to their organic wool and cotton ranges. You can buy Katia yarns from Yarnplaza. I’ve been very impressed with the range and prompt service of this online retailer.

Erika Knight sells a gorgeous linen made with 85% recycled rayon and 15% linen that is incredibly soft and has beautiful stitch definition. Studio Linen has become one of my “go to” yarns for soft, drapey garments.

A long time favourite of mine is Eco Baby from Debbie Bliss, a Fairtade, organic cotton that gets softer and softer with washing and is incredibly durable (I’ve been using cotton washcloths made from this yarn over over 5 years – used every day they show very little wear).

Finally, Vegan designer Kate Morris designs garments made from plant based yarns  and has put together a useful graphic on the relative sustainability of various plant based fibres on her website. It’s worth taking a look at how she has classified the merits and environmental impacts of various non animal fibres – I found it really helpful.