Pull the udder one

We are now 6 weeks into the no plastic challenge we have set ourselves and it feels like we’ve found a rhythm.  We have become accustomed to shopping in places where we can avoid plastic, we know the brands we can buy to avoid inadvertent polymer purchase.

There have been plenty of slip-ups, mistakes, and desperate compromises.  Just last weekend we found ourselves chilled, hungry and tired on Longsands beach at Tynemouth without any lunch and ended up choosing to buy chips that came in polystyrene boxes!  It didn’t feel good, but we could at least contrast the sad pile of unnecessary waste with the very small amount of plastic that we are buying on a weekly basis.

Being prepared and planning ahead are key.  Its always been useful when out and about with the kids to have several snacks to hand, but it becomes especially important to have something prepared when we are denying ourselves the opportunity to pop into the nearest shop for some plastic-wrapped morsels.

Bakeries are our friends.  We can pop in at a moment’s notice and grab a bakery item in a paper bag to stave off a child’s hunger for a while.  Best though is when we leave the house with snacks prepared in advance.  Apples, bananas and carrots are all very well and some of our favourite snack things, but even more guaranteed to make a bus journey scream-free are these biscuits:

Anzac Biscuits

125g plain flour

100g medium oatmeal/porridge oats

100g light brown soft sugar

50g desiccated coconut

100g unsalted butter, cubed

1 tbsp golden syrup or honey

Half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 tablespoon boiling water

Preheat oven to 170 centigrade.  Mix flour, oatmeal, sugar and coconut thoroughly in a large mixing bowl.  Melt butter and syrup/honey in a small pan.  Meanwhile put bicarb in a cup and pour on the boiling water to dissolve.  Stir bicarb into butter mixture; it will froth up.  Mix frothy liquid into bowl of dry ingredients to make a stiff dough.  Place tablespoons of mixture onto a baking paper-lined tray and flatten with a fork.  Bake for 15-20 mins or until brown (best to keep an eye as they don’t take long to be ready).

When we started this experiment I had my doubts about how we would get the milk we wanted.  It seemed to be a choice between organic cows milk in plastic bottles, or oat/coconut/soya milk in a plastic-lined tetra pack, or milk delivered in a glass bottle by the local milkman.  Obviously only the third option fits with the no-plastic thing, but I was very uncomfortable with buying milk from a “conventional” dairy, both because I know that organic certification demands a higher level of welfare for the cows, and because I know that “non-organic” milk can have all sorts of nonsense that we’d rather avoid putting into our bodies.

Luckily, Rachel decided to think outside the box and got in touch with Wheelbirks dairy in Stocksfield, where we knew from friends that “raw” unpasteurised milk was available to buy.  She made no small effort to arrange for milk to be bottled in glass bottles at the dairy, and delivered to a central point in Newcastle where it could be picked up by the other members of the milk-coop.  Between us we have been ordering around 50 litres of milk per week, which means that between 25 and 50 plastic milk bottles which would otherwise have been used have been avoided.

Best of all we get to have the most delicious milk that I have ever tasted.  It’s fresh, creamy, a delightful shade of beige, and really tastes like it is straight from the udder.

Challenges, choices and learnings

Our self-chosen mission to avoid buying plastic continues.  We continue to visit the weighhouse in the Grainger market weekly.  At first we took along our own paper bags which soon got torn and greasy, but Rachel has recently made us some voile bags which are just the thing –  light, sturdy and kind of see-through – perfect for filling with various staples and delicacies.  There has been some hardship and going-without required in order to avoid buying plastic, but this part of it has felt really luxurious; topping up our stores of nuts, seeds and dried fruit every week.

We started out with the aim of avoiding buying any new plastic, but having read and researched further into the harmful effects of substances leached from plastic eating and drinking vessels we are becoming more and more keen on replacing our existing plastics, especially those that come into contact with hot food, and those used by the kids.  So we have filled a bag with plastic baby cups, plates and tumblers.  And put it in a corner of the outhouse as we’re not too sure what to do with it all!  It doesn’t seem quite right to pass them on to someone else so they can have their endocrines disrupted in our stead…

Some things have been particularly difficult to obtain clad in anything other than a coating of plastic.  Pasta was one we struggled with at first.  Since it is a staple for the kids and since we couldn’t find it in non-plastic packaging we chose at first to buy a large volume of pasta which was in a plastic bag, from Suma.  Our reasoning was that at least by buying a large volume of pasta we were minimising the plastic:pasta ratio.  Since then we have found a brand of pasta “Barilla” that comes in a cardboard box.

We have had similar difficulties in finding rice that doesn’t come plastic-packed.  So thus far we have been buying it in as large a volume as we can, while keeping an eye out and trying to find an alternative.  Our time for researching sometimes feels quite limited among the daily tasks of family life, and as detailed above we have sometimes given in and bought the plastic; at times like this we try and remind ourselves that our goal is not plastic-free perfection, but just to be more mindful of what we are buying and consuming and to do our best to minimise how much plastic we take home.  We try, while being pretty committed, to also keep things fun and to avoid guilt at all costs.

Sometimes it seems that plastic is so ubiquitous that we have to be constantly on guard to avoid inadvertently taking it home.  We’ve had to unpack and return many a plastic bag.  It can be tough on the days when we’re not feeling very inspired by our mission to find the energy to explain to people what we are doing and why.  In the supermarket the other day I asked to have my cheese wrapped in waxed paper rather than the usual plastic, which the woman working behind the cheese counter was very willing to do.  I made the mistake though of going to fetch a basket while she was wrapping, only to find on my return that she had carefully wrapped the cheese in was paper and then sealed it into a little plastic bag.  I obviously didn’t explain myself well enough!

A tactic I’ve used a few times is to say “we’re doing a no plastic challenge!” which usually gets a good response and feels less vulnerable somehow, than saying “I’m choosing to do this because of values that are dear to me”, I guess because it seems to imply that the challenge was imposed by an outside force or that we’re doing it for charity rather than that we’re doing something unusual because it fits our values.  As I type I can see that this trick is a bit of a cop out, to dodge taking full responsibility for my values and beliefs, but I hope you’ll not judge me too harshly if I keep it in reserve for those days when I’m too tired or shy to start a discussion about my choices but still want to dodge the plastic.

First week…

So we have endured/enjoyed our first week without acquiring any more plastic!  Because we like to keep our cupboards well-stocked it has been a pretty gentle introduction; we are still merrily working through the plastic-wrapped stocks with which we had provisioned ourselves before the experiment began.

Like any normal week though there were things that we needed to stock up on, and so we had our first trip into town.  There were more than the usual preparations to make: we made sure that we had provisioned ourselves sufficiently (plenty of sandwiches made with the last of our plastic wrapped cheese, homemade biscuits, stainless steel flask full of water, apples, bananas).  Equipped with many a paper bag and a brace of reusable shopping bags we headed out.  We did forget to bring along a container suitable for putting cheese in…

We managed to find the bulk of our shopping at our first stop, the weigh house in the Grainger market – nuts, seeds, oats, sugar, raisins, flour, ground almonds, popcorn, all sold loose by weight.  The woman behind the counter was happy (or at least unperturbed) to let us fill our own paper bags instead of the plastic ones provided.  We were feeling optimistic, having ticked of most items on our list on the first visit.  Our roll continued in the market as we got hold of some TVP and other bits and pieces that we could find wrapped only in paper or card at mmm… and Almonds and Raisins.

Then we hit a snag when we tried to replenish our stock of marmite-equivalent.  Standard marmite comes with a plastic lid, as does another brand of yeast extract that was available in Almonds and Raisins.  Off we traipsed to Holland and Barrett (where, incidentally, the vast majority of things come in a plastic bag).  There we found a glass jar full of Meridian yeast extract (which luckily happens to be my favourite brand), only to discover that the shiny metal lid of the glass jar was inexplicably and surely unnecessarily reinforced with a superfluous collar of clear plastic.

Baffled, discouraged, and tired, we bought it anyway, vowing to hunt down a really plastic-free alternative before our next yeast-extract top-up, as well as to investigate further the strange phenomenon of the excess plastic bit.

Despite this failure to find a fully plastic-free jar of savoury yeasty spread, and despite the fact that we are still running down our plastic-wrapped stores, our landfill and recycling bins have been emptier than ever before, and that feels good.  While some plastics can be recycled, and some energy saved, we would save much more by not producing it in the first place, at the same time avoiding the various harmful biproducts of plastic production and recycling.

After making oatcakes last week we were chasing another “why have we never done this before?” moment, and found it when we follwed this recipe for homemade laundry liquid:

Quarter of a bar of olive oil soap, coarsely grated (use any hard soap you like)

1 tablespoon borax substitute

1 tablespoon soda crystals

Put the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and pour over half a litre of boiling water.  Stir until dissolved (less than a minute), wait for it to cool and then pour into bottle.  We made half a litre to refill an old ecover bottle but the liquid we made is thicker and more concentrated that normal laundry liquid and we think we could have made a whole litre with the same dry ingredients.  Obviously we can just use a smaller volume per wash.

We’re due to run out of washing up liquid in the next few weeks so watch this space for that recipe soon!

The Beginning

We’ve been talking about it for a while, mostly just within our family; we’ve made some preparations, at least mentally… and today was the day that we decided to just go for it.  Today marked the start of our family experiment in reducing as much as possible (the dream is to zero!) the amount of plastic in our lives.  There are at least several reasons why we decided to give this a try.  The many things we don’t like about plastics:  the harm they pose to humans, animals and ecosystems through their pervasiveness and how they are manufactured and disposed of; the health risks from plastics while they are in use in our home through the leaching of various harmful chemicals; the relative newness of “plastics” as a phenomenon and how little is known about their long-term effects; and not least an aesthetic sense that plastic is just a bit yucky, a preference for things of wood, steel, ceramic or glass; artisan artifacts rather than petrochemical prefabs.

The kids are really on board with the idea, especially the nearly 7 year old… she’s taken great pleasure in reminding us in shops with much waggling of eyebrows when we pick up something with plastic packaging, and we haven’t even started the great plasticless experiment yet.  Its a great boon that the children are all so enthused and interested by the idea – it’d be a lot less fun if this were something some of us were imposing on others.  It’s really important to us, actually, that this experiment is a fun one.  We’re doing this because we think its going to be interesting, satisfying, and meet a lot of our needs, only one of which is to contribute in some small way to making the world less plasticated.  Our experience has been that when we do things because we feel guilty, or because we think we should, we usually end up wishing we hadn’t bothered, because acting with that sort of motivation tends to deplete our energy very quickly.  So happily we embark on this project not to be better people or because we have any illusions that it is *the* one best thing for us to contribute to saving ecosystems, but because its something we can all agree on and understand, something that will hopefully bring our the way we live more closely in line with our values, and we should learn some pretty cool things along the way – like today already for example  making oatcakes for the first time!

So our first day has been a productive one with no big dilemmas, we mostly stayed at home.   Josh started by baking bread, something he does quite often anyway, and which he’ll be doing every other day from now (no more bread in plastic bags for us…).  Rachel made some biscuits, in the hope that if we can be prepared with sweet things and homemade lunches when we venture out we won’t be tempted by flirtatious snacks in plastic-and-foil bags or sandwiches in boxes peeking out of their little plastic windows.  Then in the spirit of experimentation Josh made some oatcakes, which went well, and left us thinking “why have we never done this before?!”.



200g medium oatmeal

75g porridge oats

Quarter teaspoon salt

75g boiling water

75g butter

Mix dry ingredients together, pour boiling water over butter then mix it all together.  Roll out to 5 mm thickness and cut into rounds.  Bake for 25 mins at 160 centigrade.  They turned out nicely, we had them with a bit of cheese and chutney, the kids liked them too.  We preferred them to the ones that come in little plastic packets!

So we’re looking forward to our first week of plastic-dodging.  We’ve already had to do some creative thinking; Rachel was on the phone this afternoon to Wheelbirks dairy trying to work out if they can fill up some glass bottles for us.  We’ve got a trip to town planned for Monday, and need to marshal all manner of bottles, bags and containers to fill up at weigh-houses and cheesemongers.  It shouldn’t be too much of a shock as we’ve always been fairly plastic-averse, but we are expecting unexpected challenges along the way!