Two simple recipes for do-it-yourself toothpaste

This weekend we finally finished off the toothpaste we have been using since last year, purchased before our plastic-free adventure began. We had a bit of a stockpile of the old stuff to use up, but now the last little bit is gone, and from now on I’m gonna make my own.

I’ve been suspicious of conventional toothpastes for a while and stopped buying them 18 months ago. Conventional toothpastes are full of cleaning agents, detergents, preservatives, anti-microbial agents, and thickeners, and many of these ingredients are questionable in terms of their effects on the body.

Three Nasties in Conventional Toothpaste

Sodium lauryl sulphate
This is added as a foaming agent and detergent. It is a known irritant.

Sodium fluoride
This is added to toothpaste to help prevent cavities. However it is toxic by ingestion and can be fatal. It can affect the heart and circulatory system. In younger children too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, which is when the enamel of the teeth is discoloured and the teeth have brown markings.

Triclosan
This an anti-microbial and anti-bacterial agent used in toothpaste to help prevent gum disease. However, it has a number of other impacts on humans and the environment. For example, triclosan is fairly stable and fat soluble, meaning it can accumulate in the body. It has been found in blood, urine and breast milk. It is a demonstrated endocrine disruptor and has potential links to breast cancer.

Despite its stability, it can react with chlorine in tap water and sunlight to form toxic intermediate and breakdown products such as dioxins, which are highly toxic, and chloroform, which is a carcinogen. Triclosan is also toxic to aquatic bacteria, phytoplankton, algae and fish. (This fully referenced fact sheet is great if you want more information.)

There are also concerns that its widespread use may cause resistance in bacteria similar to the way antibiotic-resistant bacteria developed.

So what are the alternatives?

You can buy natural toothpastes but they are expensive (and some still contain questionable ingredients), and they almost all come in plastic packaging. Making your own safe, inexpensive, packaging-free toothpaste seems to be the best solution.

How to Make your Own Toothpaste

You can make your own toothpaste simply in just a couple of minutes using only a handful of ingredients.

Bicarb soda – is an abrasive agent that removes dental plaque and food from teeth. It also neutralises stains and odours.

Sodium chloride (salt) – is a mild abrasive and also has anti-bacterial properties.

Glycerine/glycerol – is a sweet-tasting colourless odourless liquid that makes the paste smooth, provides lubrication and acts as a humectant, helping the toothpaste retain water. You can buy glycerine at a pharmacy.

Peppermint oil – this gives the toothpaste its minty taste. You can also use other essential oils but ensure they are food grade.

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Ingredients:

4 tsp bicarb soda
1 tsp sodium chloride (salt)
3 tsp glycerine
8 – 10 drops peppermint oil

Method:

Measure dry ingredients into a bowl. Add glycerine and stir to form a paste. Add essential oil.

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Alternative Recipe – Glycerine-Free Toothpaste

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding  glycerine in toothpaste. It all seems to come from one source, Dr Gerard F. Judd, who wrote a book called ‘Good Teeth, Birth to Death‘ published in 1996 in which he claimed glycerine coats the teeth and prevents remineralisation. I have not read the book but if using glycerine in toothpaste is something that concerns you, you can replace the glycerine with coconut oil.

Coconut oil has anti-microbial properties and because it is solid below 25ºC it works well as a glycerine substitute.

To make this version use the recipe above but substitute 3 tsp glycerine for 2 tsp coconut oil.

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The Taste Test

Neither toothpaste willtaste like conventional toothpaste, so don’t be surprised! Bicarb soda and the salt make the taste very salty. The glycerine version is slightly sweeter and has more of the texture of conventional toothpaste. It has a higher melting point, whereas the coconut oil will melt in your mouth – literally – and has a mild coconut taste and the texture of oil. If you’re not worried about glycerine (and if you’ve been using conventional toothpaste you’ve probably been using glycerine in that) I would recommend starting with that, and once you get used to the taste you could consider making the switch to coconut oil.

Deodorant: why natural is better and how to make your own!

Before you roll your nose up at the idea of making your own deodorant, let me tell you that is exactly how I was about a year ago. So what changed? Why would I want to make my own deodorant anyway?

Well… the first thing was that I became increasingly interested in what ingredients go into beauty products. I learned that some of the ingredients used in regular products are not good. And when I say ‘not good’, we’re talking carcinogens, neurotoxins, irritants, even pesticides.

Conventional anti-perspirant deodorants (the kind you buy in chemists, supermarkets and beauty stores) contain, among other things, aluminium salts. These have been linked to breast cancer. There is a LOT of info about this on the web; studies have been carried out that ‘prove’ they do with just as many that ‘prove’ they don’t. Whilst the verdict is still out, why take the risk?

The second thing that made me want to stop using conventional deodorant was learning about the way aluminium salts work. Aluminium salts are what makes a deodorant ‘anti-perspirant’, and they work by blocking the pores, or more specifically the sweat ducts. Sweat is still produced by the sweat ducts, but it cannot escape. Sweating is a natural process that has two useful functions – it regulates our body temperature by cooling us down, and also allows us to excrete toxins. (The skin is an excretory organ.) If we’re blocking our sweat ducts, then the toxins cannot be released, so where are they going? My view is, that if the body was designed to allow us to sweat, it’s probably best to let it do it’s thing.

These two reasons were enough to convince me to stop using conventional deodorant. However, I had mixed results with store-bought natural deodorants. They are often expensive, almost always come in plastic packaging, and I would say half of the ones I’ve tried don’t actually work. Let’s face it, the reason we use deodorant is to prevent ourselves from smelling bad. I’m willing to give up aluminium salts, but only if I’m exchanging it with something that will actually work. Natural and useless has no appeal.

So not being completely satisfied with the natural products on the market, I contemplated the concept of making my own. But what actually convinced me to make my own deodorant was meeting other people who made their own deodorant…and didn’t smell! For me that was the final reassurance I needed to jump in and give it a go!

Super Simple DIY Deodorant

This is a really simple recipe that only requires 3 ingredients and will take you about 5 minutes. What’s even better is that the ingredients are cheap, being things that you’d find in your grocery cupboard and are all safe enough to eat!

Makes enough to fill a small jar. Effective enough to last all day without reapplying!

Ingredients:

1 tbsp bicarb soda
4 tbsp cornflour / arrowroot powder (sometimes called tapioca flour)
2-3 tbsp coconut oil
optional: essential oils (therapeutic or food grade)

Mix bicarb soda and cornflour together in a bowl.

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Add 2-3 tbsp coconut oil. (Coconut oil has a melting point of around 25°C, so it will depend on the temperature of your kitchen whether it is solid or liquid. If it is solid, immerse the jar in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes and the oil will melt.)

Stir to form a paste.

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This looks runny because I had to warm my coconut oil slightly to melt it. As it cools it will stiffen to form a paste.

Add a few drops of essential oil if using (if not the deodorant will have a mild and pleasant coconut smell.)

Pour into a clean jar.

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How to Apply

Apply a small amount with fingertips  to underarms and rub in well.

How to store

I keep mine in the bathroom, where usually it maintains a good consistency. If the day is particularly hot and the deodorant completely liquifies, stir with a clean teaspoon and put in the fridge to harden. If it is too stiff, put the container in a bowl of warm water to soften.

Tips

  • Some people are sensitive to bicarb soda. My boyfriend has particularly sensitive skin and so I use the ratio 1:6 bicarb to cornflour. I tried the ratio 1:8 but found it was only effective for 6 or so hours after applying. I have also made it for myself using 1:4 with no problems, and I know people who use 1:1.
  • Everyone is different, so if you find my recipe doesn’t work for you, try tweaking it by adding more bicarb.
  • The amount of coconut oil you need will depend on the temperature of your house. I use less in summer and more in winter because our bathroom temperature fluctuates to maintain the same consistency.

Baking Sourdough Bread.

I love real food, and I especially love fresh real bread. Not the ‘bake-from-frozen’ or ‘filled with additives’ bread that the supermarkets sell as fresh bread, but proper, slow-risin’, crusty, still-warm-from-the-oven bread that is sold in bakeries where the bakers have been up since 4am. The kind of bread with just four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

I particularly love sourdough bread. Sourdough is slightly different to other bread because it requires a sourdough starter which, in addition to yeast, contains lactobacilli bacteria. These ferment the dough giving a distinctive and slightly sour taste. Compared to bread made with commercial yeast only, sourdough is easier to digest because fermentation helps break down gluten, and has a lower glycemic index (GI). Additionally, because sourdough is acidic it discourages mould from growing, and so the sourdough will keep for much longer.

The downside is that buying this kind of bread isn’t cheap. We used to spend over $11 a week buying two loaves from the bakery at the weekend markets. We also had to make sure we made time every weekend to go to the market in order to buy the bread, which was annoying if we wanted to make other plans. The dilemma: have fun…or have bread? Tricky.

So these factors (cost and freedom), combined with the appeal of learning a new skill, led me to decide I was going to teach myself how to make my own bread. That was six months ago, and we haven’t been back to the bread shop since.

There is a shedload of information about sourdough on the internet, and it can get a little overwhelming. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the sourdough I make consistently works, tastes amazing and keeps extremely well. If you think that bread from the shops that is still warm is delicious, wait until you make your own and eat it straight out of the oven!

How to bake a Sourdough loaf

Making sourdough can be thought of in four stages: looking after the starter culture, making the sponge (fermentation), making/proving the dough, and baking the loaf. The whole process takes about 36 hours from start to finish, although the physical time actually doing anything is far less. However it’s quite difficult to pause the stages because you’ve suddenly found something better to do, so it takes a bit of forward planning. That said, the fridge is your friend, and can give you a bit of extra time if something unexpected comes up.

The quantities described below are for making one large and small loaf. If you want to make one medium loaf, simply halve everything.

Total ingredients required: 175-200g sourdough starter culture, 1.010kg bread flour, 600ml water, 22g salt.

Sourdough Starter

To make sourdough you will need a starter culture, which contains yeast and lactobacilli bacteria. I got mine from a friend but if you don’t know anyone who makes their own bread, you could try eBay, Gumtree or Freecycle, or a local bakery.

This culture needs feeding and watering to keep it alive. I keep my culture in the fridge in a glass jar and feed it every time I make bread, which is usually every 10 days or so. It will keep fine in the fridge in-between bakes.

When you’re ready to bake, take the starter culture out of the fridge. It may have gone hard on top and not look very pleasant. Don’t worry! Stir in any lumps and they will be broken down. Leave the culture at room temperature for several hours to allow it to become active and ferment (or ripen). Leaving overnight is fine. What should happen is the culture should bubble and become frothy, and appear to double in size, before deflating back to its original size. This is when it’s ripe and ready to use. If you’re not sure whether it’s risen and deflated (if you left it overnight for example) look at the sides of the jar; if it has risen it will probably have left a residue.

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Starter taken from the fridge. It will have started to ferment in the fridge but will not be fully developed.

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The starter after a couple of hours. The bubbles show that fermentation is taking place.

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Fermentation in full swing. The starter will appear to have doubled in volume.

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Fermentation is complete and the starter is ready to use. You can see on the sides of the jar where the culture rose and then sank. Looking for this helps know when your starter is ready.

Before using the starter in your loaf you will need to retain some for the next time you bake. You will need to feed this with flour and water; the ratio starter:flour:water needs to be 1:5:5. So, for 20g of starter you need to add 100g flour and 100g water. This is called a ‘100% hydration starter’. Mix together in a bowl, pour into a clean glass jar, cover with a piece of cloth or a loosened jar lid and return to the fridge.

Making a Sourdough ‘Sponge’

Now you’ve fed your starter you’re ready to start making the loaf. The first part is making what is called the ‘sponge’. The sponge is made of flour, water and starter culture which is allowed to ferment for several hours.

Ingredients:
160-175g starter culture (remember to save 20g for the new starter culture)
460g strong white unbleached bread flour
580-600g filtered water

Method:

Weigh the ingredients into a large bowl (remember that whilst fermenting the mixture will rise). Cover with a tea towel and leave at room temperature for at least 8 hours (or overnight) until the mixture has risen and then deflated.

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The sponge mixture starts with a glossy appearance.

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As it ferments bubbles appear on the surface and the sponge rises.

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When the sponge is ready (ripe) there will be bubbles on the surface but it will have reduced in volume. You can see marks on the side of the bowl where the sponge rose and then sank. Look for this to know when your sponge is ready to use.

Preparing the Sourdough ‘Dough’

This is the stage where timing is more critical. If you don’t have enough time to make the dough, leave it to rise and then bake into bread, the sponge can be left longer until you are ready. I have left the sponge for a day in the fridge when something unexpected came up – just remember to bring it back to room temperature before using to make the dough.

Ingredients:
Fermented sponge (see previous step)
550g strong white unbleached bread flour
22g salt

(Don’t be tempted to leave the salt out. In addition to adding flavour it slows the fermentation rate of yeast, and also strengthens the gluten, which is what allows the dough to rise.)

Method:

Grease a loaf tin (or two) with butter or oil. Add the flour and salt to the bowl containing the fermented sponge mixture. Mix together with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes stiff.

Turn the mixture out onto an un-floured surface. It will look impossibly sticky and nothing like bread dough, but don’t be disheartened. Once you start working it, it will start to look like dough very quickly.

Don't panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Don’t panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Stretch and fold the dough for at least 10 minutes using your hands. (If it is really sticky a large silicon spatula is helpful to begin with.) Working it like this allows the gluten to develop which is needed for the bread to rise.

After 10 minutes the dough should be smooth and elastic (if it isn’t, keep on working it and you’ll get there). Shape into an oblong that will fit into the loaf tin. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. The time this takes will vary according to the temperature of your kitchen – in Australia I find that in summer it takes around 4 hours, and in winter nearer 6 hours.

You will know your loaf is ready when it has doubled in size. If you leave it too long it will start to sink.

Baking the Sourdough Loaf

Total time required: 30 minutes

Preheat your oven to 250°C.

Pour an inch of water into a roasting tin and place in the oven once it reaches the correct temperature. Once the water in the tray is bubbling, the oven is ready for your loaf. (You can speed this up by using boiling water to pour into the roasting tin.) The steam created will give your loaf a better crust.

Using a sharp knife, score the top of the loaf just before you put into the oven. This will stop the loaf bursting open as it cooks.

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Use the sharpest knife you have and try to cut the bread quickly to avoid dragging the skin.

Place the loaf in the oven. After 10 minutes reduce the heat to 200°C, and bake for another 5 minutes. If one end appears to have cooked more than the other, it is fine to turn the loaf around at this point.

Now turn the oven off and leave for 5 minutes, then open the oven door slightly and leave for another 10 minutes.

Take out of the oven and remove the loaf from the tin and onto a cooling rack as soon as possible – use a clean tea-towel to handle the loaf if it is too hot. If you leave the loaf in the tin the steam will make the crust soggy.

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Your loaf should keep for several days (and up to two weeks), and the flavours will continue to develop.

Baking Sourdough: Timings

It’s worth giving a bit of thought to when it will be convenient for you to actually put the loaf in the oven, and work back from that so that all the other steps happen at the right time. I have misjudged how long the loaf would take to rise and had to stay up past midnight in order to actually bake it so it wasn’t flat by morning!

This is what generally works for me:
Day 1: 6pm Remove starter culture from fridge and (leave at room temperature for 12 hours)
Day 2: 6pm Make new starter culture (10 minutes)
Day 2: 6.10pm Make sourdough sponge (leave at room temperature for 12-18 hours)
Day 3: 8am Make dough (10 mins)
Day 3: 8.10am Work dough (10-15 mins)
Day 3: 8.25am Grease loaf tin and put loaf into tin (leave at room temperature for 4-8 hours)
Day 3: 2pm Bake loaf (30 mins)

If you want to bake bread on a Saturday it’s quite easy to do the other stages on Thursday and Friday evening, and once the bread is rising in the tin you can leave it for several hours. I find it all starts to go wrong when I try to make the sponge and the dough on the same day, because the fermenting of the sponge can’t be rushed or speeded up, and it means I am still baking bread after midnight. If you start out with good intentions but come Saturday morning you can’t face getting up, let alone baking, the sponge can be left on the side for a few hours or put in the fridge for 24 hours without any adverse effects, and you can make the dough and bake the loaf the following day.

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How to… Make Your Own Natural Yoghurt

This is a recipe for dairy yoghurt. You’ll find my recipe for dairy-free coconut yoghurt here.

Ever since I went to a workshop, I have been meaning to make my own yoghurt. The workshop was in February. We’re creeping towards May. I needed to stop thinking about it and talking about it, and actually do it!

The delay was predominantly the result of my not having the right equipment, namely a thermos flask and a thermometer. Strictly speaking you don’t need either of these things, but it makes it easier. Plus they are both useful tools to have in the kitchen anyway, and I know I will use them.

After scouring Gumtree and eBay for two months I decided to bite the bullet and buy a new flask. A wide-neck one is more practical and there didn’t seem to be any available second-hand. I also bought a new thermometer. Both came with a few pieces of unnecessary plastic packaging (do I really need a carry strap for the flask, and even so, does the carry strap really need to be ‘protected’ by a plastic bag?!).

I don’t buy brand new things very often (see why here) but sometimes I have to admit defeat. At least now I can get on with my yoghurt-making!

(I have to confess I was slightly nervous about the end result of my first batch. I remember at school in biology class having to do an experiment where we filled test tubes with milk and a dollop of yoghurt and then incubated them at different temperatures for a few days. After waiting the few days, we ended up with…test tubes of milk and a dollop of yoghurt. Even the teacher was confused. But I needn’t have worried…)

Making yoghurt is simple. You will need: fresh whole fat milk and live yoghurt (it will say ‘live’, ‘probiotic’ or ‘cultures’ on the label). 1 litre of milk requires 1 tablespoon of yoghurt, and should make 700ml yoghurt. As well as a flask and a thermometer, you will require a saucepan and a wooden spoon.

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Warm over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer reaches 82oC. This heat treatment kills any bacteria that may be present in the milk. Turn off the heat and allow the milk temperate to drop to 45oC.

The milk needs to drop to 45oC so that when the yoghurt cultures are added they are not killed by the high temperature. Once the milk has cooled enough spoon the yoghurt culture into the flask (make sure the flask has been thoroughly cleaned with hot water beforehand) and add a small amount of the milk from the saucepan. Stir thoroughly before adding the rest of the milk into the flask.

Screw on the flask lid. Now you need to leave the flask for 8 hours to allow the yoghurt culture to do it’s thing – namely converting lactose (the natural sugar in milk) into lactic acid, which then causes the milk proteins to coagulate, which results in the thicker, creamier texture of yoghurt.

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Ta-da! Fresh homemade probiotic natural yoghurt.

On opening up the flask, you should be looking at a container full of delicious probiotic yoghurt! It will need stirring to make sure there’s no lumps. (This is why a wide-necked flask is useful.) The yoghurt can then be poured into a glass jar and stored in the fridge. It should last several days.

How to…Line your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, using each for only a few minutes. When you think that plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, it seems pretty crazy to be using such a valuable resource to make something that’s only going to be used for such a short amount of time, and then thrown away.

A common argument – or even justification – for using these plastic bags is, oh but I do recycle my bags, I use them to line my rubbish bin. Thing is, that’s not recycling. It’s barely even re-using.

It’s still sending to landfill, just with other rubbish inside.

I have to confess, before I signed up to Plastic Free July I used to take the odd plastic bag from the shops when I needed to line my rubbish bin. I certainly wasn’t going to pay for virgin plastic to line my bin in the form of fancy bin liners. And what is the point in buying compostable corn starch liners when you’re sending them (and their contents) to landfill, where they won’t break down? Landfill sites essentially bury the waste and prevent exposure to air, moisture and light – and also the microbes that can break them down.

And then someone said to me, why don’t you line your rubbish bin with old newspaper? Such a simple and obvious solution! I really don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

How to Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

All you need is a few sheets of old newspaper. I use three sets of two sheets, and sometimes I’ll fold some additional ones to put in the base. It takes about a minute.

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When the bin is nearly full you simply roll over the tops to make a parcel and dump in your outdoor rubbish bin. The great thing is that newspaper is usually made from recycled paper so has already had a previous life (or several lives) before you send it off to landfill.

What are you waiting for?!

Fruit and vegetable shopping…the sustainable way

Wednesday night is vegetable box delivery night. This is a fairly new thing for us in Australia, although we had used vegetable box delivery schemes in the UK. Last night was our third delivery, and we’ve decided to make it a regular weekly thing.

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Our first veg box delivery. Completely plastic- and actually all unnecessary packaging- free!

Read more

Plastic Free July 2013 Breakfast Launch

This morning I was invited to the breakfast launch for the Plastic Free July 2013 campaign. Not only that, but I was asked to share my story about my Plastic Free July to the group, as a participant from last year’s challenge.

Plastic Free July is an initiative of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth, WA, developed by the Western Earth Carers, and this year will be its third year. The challenge went from just 40 local participants in the first year to a few hundred last year, mainly due to the hugely successful Plastic Free July facebook page and other social media.

This year, we’re hoping it’s going to attract thousands of participants, and there’s been considerable interest from people in the States and Canada as well as across Australia. The challenge is simple: go without single use plastic for the month of July.

I’ve talked before on the blog about how the movie Bag It and the Plastic Free July Challenge were big motivators for me to make some changes to the way I live, and what really started me on the sustainability journey I’m currently treading. So to be able to talk about my Plastic Free July journey to a packed audience, and hopefully inspire some others to take up the challenge this year, was pretty exciting!

It was really well received, which was fantastic, and I also had the opportunity afterwards to be interviewed by RTR FM for a radio programme that will be airing in June, although I don’t know the day or time yet. I’ll make sure I find out though; I’ve never been on the radio before! I thought it would be great to share what I talked about here on the blog too.

Before Plastic Free July

Looking back, my awareness of my plastic consumption was pretty low. I would take my own shopping bags to shops and generally refuse bags at the checkout, only taking a plastic bag if I needed to line my rubbish bin at home. I also used to buy fresh produce loose, rather than in bags, but everything else came in packaging.

My plastic-free consumption today

I would say that today I am pretty much plastic-free! I don’t buy food products in plastic packaging; I don’t buy cleaning products, cosmetics or toiletries in plastic packaging. Pretty much, if it comes in plastic, I don’t buy it. The main things I have issues with are plastic lids that come on glass bottles, which I cannot always avoid. Medicine comes in plastic, but I avoid anything excessive like boxes wrapped in cellophane.

What I did during Plastic Free July

The big message from Plastic Free July is that the challenge isn’t about going without, it’s about finding alternatives. One simple alternative to using a plastic bag to line your rubbish bin is to use old newspapers. I found a local dairy that sells milk and yoghurt in glass bottles and jars that can also be returned to the dairy for re-use. I started taking my own re-usable fabric produce bags and containers when I went shopping, and I started shopping more at markets and bulk food stores.

I also changed some of my habits. I now take my own reusable takeaway coffee cup when I want to grab a takeaway coffee, and if I’ve forgotten it, I’ll dine in (provided they use proper cups of course!). I also opt to eat in more than takeaway now to avoid all the unnecessary packaging. If I’m buying an ice-cream, I’ll always chose a cone rather than a tub, and avoid the little plastic spoon.

What I found difficult

The hardest thing at the start of the challenge was knowing where to find these plastic-free “alternatives”. But as more people took up the challenge it became a lot easier. The Plastic Free July facebook page was a great resource for seeking knowledge and support, and a useful tool to share great finds. At the Plastic Free July 2013 launch today, WMRC announced their new website www.plasticfreejuly.org, which is full of useful information.

What I learned

The biggest thing I learned was how much plastic exists in our lives. It’s quite scary when you think that every single piece of plastic that has been created since plastic was invented still exists in the world today. This stuff takes hundreds of years to break down.

The second biggest thing I learned was how, with a little bit of effort, you can eliminate a lot of it from your daily life…because it’s unnecessary. So much of the stuff we buy is completely over-packaged. As I mentioned before, going plastic-free isn’t about going without, it’s about finding alternatives. And I learned that there is a plastic-free alternative to almost everything.

Some people who talked about going plastic free told me that there is nothing that you can buy from your local supermarket. But that’s not true. Alternatives come in glass jars, bottles, tins. In my local supermarket I can buy pasta in cardboard boxes, cordial and fruit juice in glass, toilet roll wrapped in paper. The one thing that you can’t buy plastic-free is junk food. If it’s filled with synthetic ingredients, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup, it’ll come in plastic packaging. So if you stop buying plastic, your diet improves straightaway.

I also learned that most people react positively. At the deli counters, even the supermarket ones, the staff are more than happy to use my containers rather than their plastic bags. I just have to remind some of them to weigh the container before filling it so I’m not charged for the weight of the container too! People are interested in why you don’t use plastic, and most people think it’s a great thing to be doing.

The other thing I learned since going plastic-free is that I spend less on food. Some things do cost more. The milk and yoghurt I buy in glass bottles is more expensive than milk in the supermarket, and cheese from the deli counter will cost more than the mass-produced cheese that’s vacuum-packed. The quality, however, is infinitely better. And these expensive items are offset by shopping more in markets and bulk food stores which are cheaper than the supermarkets. But the biggest saving comes from not buying junk.

Why I’d recommend Plastic Free July

There are so many reasons why Plastic Free July is an amazing experience, but I’ve kept it to just a few.

  1. It’s a real eye-opener in terms of the amount of plastic in our lives, especially UNNECESSARY plastic.

  2. It’s a great way to create awareness of the issues surrounding plastic, simply by doing your shopping.

  3. It’s fun! It’s a great way to try new things and change old habits.

  4. You’ll eat much more healthily.

  5. You’ll probably save money.

  6. You’ll be supporting local businesses and local producers rather than buying mass-produced rubbish and lining the pockets of the big multi-national companies.

If you’re interested in signing up to Plastic Free July, or even just finding out a bit more information, check out the new WMRC website at www.plasticfreejuly.org.

“Think about it. Why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever, and you’re just going to throw it away? What’s up with that?”

-Jeb Berrier, Bag It Movie

A word (or two) on recycling

Recycling. Almost everybody has heard of recycling. (Just in case you’re one of the minority that hasn’t, it’s the process of taking old materials and turning them into new products.) The number of households that recycle is on the increase and local councils are becoming more supportive of the idea, with collection points and kerbside collections in urban areas. In 2009, 99% of Australian households recycled and/or reused, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

(Reusing. That’s something different to recycling, although people often mix the terms up. If I finish a bottle of cordial, wash it up and then refill with water to keep in the fridge, then that is reusing. If instead I put the bottle in my kerbside recycling, and it gets collected by truck, driven to a recovery facility, sorted, cleaned, melted down and reshaped into a new bottle, then it has been recycled. The two are very different. Recycling uses energy to create a new product, whereas reusing does not.)

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A big heap of recycling waiting to be sorted. Yep, this is recycling!

So… back to recycling. If 99% of Australian households recycle, then that’s great… isn’t it? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. Whilst 99% of these households recycle, the ABS estimated recycling rates for Australia to be around 50%. In WA, the state where I live, recycling rates are only 33%. The other 22 million tonnes of waste are sent to landfill. So 99% of households may be recycling, but they’re not recycling 100% of their waste.

The other thing about recycling, it’s not the big green magical solution we’ve all been led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is great and we should all recycle what we can. But the idea that it’s ‘enough’ is a myth. Here are just some of the shortfalls of recycling:

Recycling still uses energy – in transport, recovery and processing of the materials.

Just because something is recyclable, it doesn’t mean it will get recycled. Different councils have different rules to what they accept and if you put something in your recycling box that isn’t on their list, it’ll get sent straight to landfill.

Products are often downgraded. In theory a product can be melted down and made into the same product, but this is often difficult and can be expensive, and it is more likely that the product is made into an inferior product, a process called downcycling. This is especially true of plastic which can only be downcycled.

Contamination can be an issue. You may have sorted your recycling out diligently, but if your neighbours have thrown pottery, lightbulbs and old pillows in with theirs, chances are the whole load will end up going to landfill.

Overseas processing– labour costs are often cheaper overseas (and labour laws are often more lax) so containers of materials can be often shipped abroad for processing, which adds an environmental (and financial) cost to the process.

Recycling is ultimately a business; the products need a market and it needs to be profitable. For example, plastic is bulky (so expensive to transport) and there are many different types meaning it requires sorting (another expense), and the end product has a fairly low value, which partly explains why plastic recycling is far less common than paper, aluminium or glass.

Recycling

This is just a fraction of the waste delivered to this site every day to be recycled. The vehicle at the back is completely dwarfed by the heap.

The shortfalls of recycling really hit home for me when I had the chance to visit a recycling facility last year. It looked (and smelled) like a rubbish tip. Less than 20% of all glass they received was recycled, the rest was sent to landfill due to lack of ‘business opportunities’. The glass they did recycle was used for road base. Any recycling that arrived in plastic bags was automatically sent to landfill – no time to open them, plus there may be potential hazards. Anything mixed with shredded paper went to landfill – it contaminated the other items and was difficult to remove.

It felt like recycling anything was far too much hassle for these guys, and that was their job! Bales of old newspapers sat in sea containers waiting to be shipped to Asia. Nothing about the experience felt particularly sustainable. Before I used to feel good about recycling. Not so much now!

The good news is recycling isn’t the only option. The traditional waste hierarchy has three principles: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. Recycling comes last. Before we even get to this we need to consider the others. First reduce, and then re-use. I’ve made changes to the way I shop, the products I buy. I’ve taught myself how to make things from scratch to avoid packaging altogether. And of course I still recycle…but there’s so much less than there used to be.

The Joy of Second-Hand

This weekend we were able to borrow a car for a couple of hours, and took the opportunity to go furniture shopping. I wanted a desk to be able to work from and as we recently sold our sofa to free up some space in the tiny flat, we now actually had room for one.

When we moved into our (unfurnished) flat 15 months ago, we decided that all the furniture we purchased would be second-hand. There were a number of reasons for this. The environmental factor was a big one, of course. Why buy something brand new when we could buy something old and give it another lease of life? New items are also always ridiculously overpackaged. Having just come from the UK, we had recently experienced selling a number of (once-new) items for significantly less than they had cost to buy. Not only did we realise the depreciation of new and shiny bits and pieces, but having seen the smiles of the people who were walking away with our stuff bought at cheap-as-chips prices, we realised that second hand furniture didn’t have to be rubbish and there were bargains to be had.

Our first purchases were a washing machine (I researched the top water efficient models currently on the market, and then looked for a second hand one) and two old but clean and surprisingly comfortable green armchairs which cost just $10. We have since added a bed, mattress and two bedside tables, a dining table and four chairs, the sofa (which we have just re-sold) and now the desk. I have also bought a couple of second-hand kitchen appliances. We’ve saved a few trees (and a lot of plastic packaging!) as well as a few dollars, and we’ve had only good experiences with everything we’ve bought.

Now I can’t imagine buying brand new furniture. That’s not to say I never will, but whilst there’s so much great pre-loved furniture out there just waiting for a new home, there just doesn’t seem to be any reason why I would.

Nine reasons why second hand furniture shopping is great:

1. Sustainability

In a world of finite resources, why waste what we have making new things when there are old things that can do the job perfectly well?

2. Plastic free

Second hand furniture never comes cling-wrapped or bubble-wrapped, there’s no individually wrapped drawer knobs and door knobs and screws, and there’s no plastic wallet for the ‘instruction manual’. In fact, there’s no instruction manual as it’s already been put together. Hurrah!

3. Individuality

Second hand furniture is a chance to find exactly what you want – quirky, functional, antique, ethnic, bohemian, sensible – in the colour, material and size that you’re looking for. Rather than in the shops, where what you can buy is dictated by what the powers-that-be have decided is fashionable this year.

4. Better quality

Things that are made to last – guess what? – last. Things that are made to be cheap usually don’t. For the same price as you’d pay in the cheap mass-produced furniture warehouses you can buy solid items that will last much longer. And, as an added bonus, you don’t have to traipse around a mass-produced furniture warehouse clutching a colander and some wooden coat hangers that you’re sure will come in useful.

5. VOCs

You how those new items you buy smell so…new? Well, that would be the volatile organic compounds, and you’re breathing them in. These are chemicals found in paints and coatings with low boiling points, which evaporate into the air. Because second-hand furniture is older, they will have less VOCs.

6. Money

Second hand furniture is invariably going to be cheaper than its brand new equivalent, and rare antiques aside, most furniture will depreciate. Scuffs, knocks and scratches are bound to happen in time, so why pay a premium for scratch-free? People sometimes need to sell stuff in a hurry, and it’s possible to find real bargains. In fact, people give away items that they no longer need if they are going to a good home.

7. Glimpses into the lives of others

It’s not often that you are welcomed into a complete stranger’s house. I love getting to see new neighborhoods and briefly glimpsing the lives of people whose paths would probably never cross with mine, were it not for this brief transaction. Whilst that may sound a little odd (!), it’s really surprising how often people ask about your plans, or share their own history, and you make a connection.  After all, you’re taking a tiny piece of their life, and placing it in your own. That’s how I feel, but maybe that’s just me!

8. Convenience

No traipsing round the shops with half the local population at the weekend. Instead, browsing online from the comfort of my own home at a time that suite me and making a quick phone call or two.

9. Freedom

There’s a quote from the movie Fight Club that goes “the things you own end up owning you”. I love the way that second-hand items feel transient… they might be mine now but they belonged to someone else before me and they’ll probably belong to someone else after me.

Worm Farms…Tips and Tricks

After writing my post yesterday on how to build a DIY worm farm, I thought it might be useful to write another post explaining how to look after your worms, and also provide some reasons why you might consider worm farming in the first place.

In their National Waste Policy fact sheet, the Australian Government estimate that two-thirds of waste sent to landfill is organic. If you’re not sure what I mean by organic, it’s the waste that originally came from plants and animals which can be broken down. As well as the obvious grass clippings, food scraps and bones, this includes cardboard, paper and wood. In 2006-2007, Australians landfilled almost 14 million TONNES of organic waste. A full garbage truck holds 10 tonnes. Sending all that organic waste to landfill meant an extra 1.4 million garbage trucks on our roads. Even if you think Australia’s got the space, that’s a lot of unnecessary heavy road traffic, not to mention fossil fuel burning and airborne pollutants via vehicle emissions.

Next up, soil quality. Australia has some of the oldest land masses on Earth, and consequently they are nutrient-poor and with little organic matter. Perth has some of the worst agricultural soils in the world. (Someone once told me that it was officially the poorest soil in the world, but I can’t find anything that confirms it. However, ask anyone who ever tried to grow anything in the soil in Perth, and they’ll confirm it for you!) The sandy soil repels water and also nutrients. If you want to grow plants in Australia, you need to improve your soil by adding organic matter. And this is where the worms come in!

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Worms and their castings. Castings are the product created when worms break down organic matter, and contain nutrients that plants can uptake easily.

Worms eat organic waste and break into down into a product called castings. These castings contain beneficial nutrients that can easily be absorbed by plants. Their texture also enables them to retain water and so they are great for improving soil structure. And they won’t burn plants, as some chemical fertilizers do. Castings are also suitable for seedlings. Worms also produce a liquid that needs to be drained – worm wee! (Or more technically, leachate.) Some tips on using worm wee are provided below.

And keeping worms is fun! It’s free, they require very little maintenance, meaning you can go on holiday for weeks and they will still be alive on your return – how many pets can you say that about?

Tips & Tricks

So I’ve made the case for reducing fossil fuels, reducing landfill, improving your garden and having fun…so what’s keeping you from getting your own worm farm? Is it any of these?

1. Worm Farms smell.

Actually, they don’t smell if you look after them properly. Castings have an organic smell similar to the earthly smell of soil. The main cause of smelliness is too much food. It can be tempting once you set up your worm farm to add every single scrap of food to it immediately, but worms only eat their body weight in food every day, so you need to start small and increase the food once the worm numbers build up.

2. I don’t have a garden.

Neither do I! The worm farm takes up only a very small amount of space, and it will take several months to fill up the worm farm with castings. You can use them with house plants or pot plants and even if you don’t garden, you are bound to know someone who does so just give them the box of castings once it is full.

3. I don’t have time.

Seriously, how much time do you think you need?! Once the worm farm is set up, all you do is empty your food scraps that you would have thrown in the bin into the worm farm. It helps to have the worm farm nearby – if it’s located at the bottom of the garden you are far less likely to make the trip.

Problem-Solving

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully covers some of the more common problems that you might encounter.

My worm farm smells

Likely cause: too much food

Solution: STOP ADDING FOOD! Give the worms a chance to eat what they already have. Anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) can also cause this so give the top layer a stir to aerate.

My worms are escaping

Likely cause: If it is only a couple of worms, there is probably not an issue. If there is a mass exodus, then there may be too much moisture or too much food.

Solution: Add newspaper to reduce the moisture levels, and stop feeding if there are large amounts of uneaten food.

I have other pesties in my worm farm

Likely cause: Not all insects in your worm farm are problems, and you should expect to find other creatures making their home here. But some pests indicate problems.

Solution: Burying food should keep unwanted pests at bay. Flies indicate there is too much food, so reduce the feeding. Ants indicate that the conditions are too dry, so add water.

Other Things to Know

  • You need to use composting worms for your worm farm – varieties such as red worms or tiger worms, as these are adapted to the conditions of a worm farm, whereas ordinary earthworms are not.
  • Worms prefer cooler conditions so on a very hot day, add an ice pack above the worm blanket to keep the inside of the worm farm cool. However, freezing will kill them! (This is not a problem we have here in Perth but may be an issue in cooler climates.) If you are expecting a frost, bring the worm farm indoors.
  • Worms do not have teeth, but suck in food. The smaller the food particles are, the more they can eat. Blending or chopping helps, but if you can’t be bothered, freezing the food then allowing to thaw will help break down the cell walls and make it easier for your worms. And if you can’t manage that, just try to bury your food so it doesn’t attract pests.
  • Worms don’t like acidic conditions and don’t like acidic food such an onions and citrus. Avoid giving these to your worms.

Worm Wee vs Worm Tea

You may come across references on the internet to both worm wee (leachate), and worm tea. The two names are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but they refer to different products. Leachate is what drains from the worm farm. Worm tea is a product made using castings, water and molasses, which are “brewed” for 24-48 hours. The main difference is that worm tea is aerobic, and so great for plants, whereas leachate can be anaerobic.

Leachate is fine to add to compost, but if your leachate is anaerobic it may harm your plants. I learnt this the hard way, diluting my leachate to a 1:10 ratio (1 part leachate for 10 parts water) and pouring on my seedlings, which caused them all to go yellow and die.

The way my worm farm is designed, my leachate does not have much contact with air and so will always be anaerobic. If your leachate drains freely into an open container it will probably be aerobic. You can try to aerate your leachate by diluting and exposing to air for a couple of days before using. However, always exercise caution when using on plants. Make sure you dilute 1:10 with water, and avoid using on seedlings, house plants or other temperamental plants.