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To Anyone Who’s Ever Had To Compromise

I’ve been planning to write this since I wrote about buying an iPad. I received some criticism for it (which was to be expected, given the nature of this blog), and that got me thinking.

Did I make the wrong decision? Did I abandon my morals? Am I a bad person? Have I fallen off the wagon?

Trying to live in a sustainable, ethical way isn’t always easy. There always seems to be compromise. It isn’t so much about the right thing to do, but the least bad thing to do.

I remember when I first stopped thinking about doing more, wishing I could do more, and decided to do something about it. I started doing postgraduate studies in Environmental Decision-Making, and I secured an internship at a UK charity called Tree Aid. Whereas at my previous workplace I was sometimes referred to as a tree-hugger (getting an internship at a charity called Tree Aid in no way helped this!), now through study and work I was surrounded by people who cared as much about sustainability, ethical consumerism, social justice and the environment as I did. Maybe they even cared more.

As someone who was just beginning this journey, I was expecting the people I was now exposed to to be hardened “greenies” (although what I thought that meant, I’m not sure). Yes, everyone was passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated. What I found surprising though, was all of them did things that I didn’t consider to fit with this image I had created.

There were the vegans who didn’t use animal products for environmental reasons, yet drank soy (soy production contributes to rainforest destruction).

There were families that wanted to connect more with nature so lived in the country, but had multiple cars to make this possible, including a four-wheel drive for the many trips into town for supplies, school and social outings.

There were people who would not step foot inside a department or high street store, and only bought ethical clothing, yet would shop for groceries at the supermarket.

There were people who took regular flights to visit projects or attend courses or seminars, or to travel to remote places to reconnect with nature and feel re-inspired.

At first I felt a little indignant. How can these people call themselves environmentalists when they fly/shop at Tesco/drive a gas-guzzling car?! Then I realised…they weren’t calling themselves anything. I was the one labelling them. They were just trying to do the best they could with the resources they had available to them.

Another thing I’ve slowly come to realise, is that you can be passionate about many things, but often they are in conflict with one another.

  • Believing in Fair Trade, wanting farmers in poor countries to be paid a fair wage, and wanting to provide a market for these products…whilst also believing in supporting local producers and the local economy, and avoiding high food miles.
  • Wanting to support organic, sustainable farming practices with free-range, grass-fed animals, whilst recognising that a vegetarian/plant-based/vegan diet uses less energy and is considered more sustainable.
  • Flying uses huge amounts of fuel, has a huge carbon footprint and is a massive source of greenhouse gases…yet it enables people who do great work on sustainability to travel and reach wider audiences to spread their message. It also allows people to connect with nature and remote places, or see social injustice and poverty, and feel inspired to fight for them.
  • Electronic gadgets mean mining, manufacturing processes that use chemicals, questionable working conditions and end products with short shelf lives that contribute to landfill…yet they are the main means of communicating the in 21st Century; if people want to connect, to inspire, to teach and to learn, these gadgets are necessary.

When faced with conflicts like this, we have to choose. How we choose depends on our situation, our resources, our experiences at that moment. It doesn’t mean we’d make the same choice next time. It doesn’t even mean we made the right choice this time – after all, making mistakes is how we learn, and grow, and get better at what we do.

When I bought my iPad, I made a decision, and I was faced with a choice. I wanted to be able to connect with other people online, and be a part of the sustainability online community. I wanted to be able to work online outside of home, and the freedom this gives me. I wanted to be able to read books, magazines and articles electronically, to learn more and feel inspired. The decision was to invest in a tablet. My choice wasn’t about whether this was the most sustainable thing to want; it was whether I could achieve this in a more sustainable way. Looking at options, there was no ideal solution, just a “least bad” one. That’s how I made my choice.

You know what? Sometimes, that’s how it is. We have to compromise.

Having to compromise sometimes doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my principles (tweet this). It doesn’t mean I care less about living a sustainable lifestyle, Fair Trade, social justice, landfill waste or plastic pollution.

It means I’m not perfect. But I’m doing the best that I can.

The Last Day of Plastic Free July…and a Debrief!

Phew. It’s the 31st, and that means Plastic Free July is over. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief! Whether this was your first attempt at going plastic-free, or whether you’re a seasoned veteran, it’s still a tough challenge. Even as someone who has boycotted plastic for two years, I find it tough.

Why? Because it’s confronting. It makes you question your habits, your decisions, your values – and then puts you up to the test. It’s that feeling of compromise that I mention so often…wanting to do the right thing, knowing what the right thing would be, but when faced with a decision in that moment, it doesn’t seem so black-and-white.

Maybe it’s the cost. Overall I’ve found that quitting plastic has reduced my food bill, but when you’re starting out it often isn’t that way. You probably make choices for the products you buy based on cost – so when you start basing your choices on packaging, the cost can skyrocket. If you’re still shopping in your regular shop, and for your regular items, this is likely. Slowly though, as you start finding alternative places to shop and start choosing different products, your costs go back down.

Maybe it’s the time. When you’re in a routine, and you buy the same things week in, week out then you can shop without thinking. Most of us could navigate round our regular shop with our eyes closed. But suddenly we have to start again. We have to make new choices, look for alternatives, maybe find new places to shop. The time spent shopping increases (and who wants that?!). It’s easy to write it off and go back to your old ways. Remember though, habits take time to form. If you stick with it, you’ll end up with a new routine that is just as painless as the last, and one that you can do without thinking too. Give it time.

Maybe it’s your morale. At the start of a challenge, we feel excited and ready to go. As time goes on, slip-ups happen, we struggle to find what we want, we feel drained and it all feels too hard. When we feel like this, it’s tempting to give up. Remember, though…change is never easy. However, it will get easier over time. Don’t dwell on what you can’t change, focus on what you can change. Celebrate your successes. If you need time out then take it, and come back when you’re feeling ready to give it another go.

Maybe it’s your ego, resisting. I’m not talking morale here, I’m talking about your ego, your mind, your inner voice. You know the one. The voice that persuades you to eat that extra piece of chocolate cake, even though you’ve already eaten two bits and you’re really far too full! (Or is that just me…?) Plastic Free July is going really well, you’ve had no slip-ups, you’re feeling pleased with yourself and all of a sudden you have an overwhelming desire to go and buy something completely smothered in plastic. Not because you need it, or even want it necessarily: it’s your ego trying to take back control – coaxing with “why shouldn’t you?” “who cares?” and “what does it matter?”. It’s a feeling of defiance and of rebellion. At some stage, we’ve all been there. Give in, if you have to, but don’t give up. Keep persisting, and these feelings will pass.

Whatever it is, remember we are all in this together! You’re not alone. There is a growing community of people who are going plastic-free, who have ideas, tips and suggestions, can listen and offer support when you’re struggling and can celebrate with you when you finally find something you need that’s plastic free and your regular friends think you’ve gone crazy. We understand!

If you want a bit more encouragement, check out how Plastic Free July changed our lives for the better; it’s a summary of my first year of living without plastic, and all the good things that came from it!

To everyone who took part in Plastic Free July – congratulations! It doesn’t really matter how well you did or how many slip-ups you made, the most important thing is that you took part. (Hopefully you had fun, made some new friends and learnt a thing or two, too!) After all, recognising that there’s a problem, and deciding to do something about it, is the first step. The first step is always the hardest. It will get easier from here!

Now I want to hear from you! Did you take part in Plastic Free July? What was the hardest thing for you? What was the easiest? Do you have any tips for people who have yet to take part – things you learned from the experience? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

Oh tea-bags, you innocent-looking things, you. Thinking that just by turning yourselves into a delicious cup of tea I wouldn’t question you. In fact, I didn’t question you. Luckily for me, others did, which led me to this revelation: teabags contain plastic.

Last July I decided to switch to loose leaf tea because I found it hard to find teabags that were plastic-free. By plastic-free, I mean teabags in boxes neither smothered in plastic on the outside, or teabags wrapped in plastic inside the box instead. I also got thinking about how wasteful teabags were compared to loose leaf tea, and how much better the latter tastes.

But not once did it occur to me that the majority of teabags are actually made with plastic.

The First Revelation: Teabags Contain Plastic

Browsing the Trashed website (read my review of this powerful documentary), I came upon the list “10 Small Things”. Nestled between “Use a wooden toothbrush” and “Shop at the Farmers’ Market” (both things I’ve discussed here many times!), I found this: “Have a nice (for the environment) cup of tea”. It turns out that teabags are actually only 70-80% biodegradable because they also contain polypropylene!

Not only that, but apparently 165 million cups of tea are drunk in the UK alone every day. So whilst the plastic in one teabag might seem negligible, all those cups of tea are actually contributing surprisingly to plastic waste.

Trashed Movie 10 Small Things

Sneaky screengrab from the Trashed film website: One of their ten tips for reducing waste is using loose leaf tea – because teabags contain plastic!

Revelation Two: Almost ALL Teabag Manufacturers Use Plastic in their Teabags

Feeling like an investigative journalist, I dug out the 2010 Which? article which found that the majority of teabags, including those by PG Tips and Teadirect, contained polypropylene (plastic #5). In fact, they only found one brand that didn’t: Jacksons of Picadilly. A Guardian article also published in 2010 stated that (according to the UK Tea Council) 96% of those 165 million cups of tea drunk in the UK every day were made with teabags. It also revealed that Twinings, Clipper, Tetley and Typhoo also make their teabags using plastic.

Twinings! I was so pleased last year when I thought I’d finally found a plastic-free brand of teabag. Now I find that they may not use plastic in their packaging but they’re using it in the actual teabag!

Something else caught my eye in the article, and it made me really mad. It’s a quote from Teadirect’s Whitney Kakos (who according to the internet, was the Sustainability Manager for Teadirect in 2010). She said: “Most consumers don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care.”

Well I’ve noticed, and I care, and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Revelation Three: The Research is OLD but the findings are CURRENT

These articles were written in 2010, which was four years ago, so it’s possible that things have changed. Whilst I was busy researching all of this, by chance (or destiny?!) another plastic-free blogger @Westywrites was doing her own research into teabags, and contacting all the companies in question asking whether they still use plastic in their teabags.

Not writing letters and sitting patiently for a reply, she was straight onto Twitter to find out what was going on.

Here’s what she asked:

[Dear Tea Company] Can you please let me know if you use plasticisers, or a similar material, in your tea bags? Thank you.

Here are the answers (so far):

Plastic Teabags Twitter

(There’s since been a phone call to PG Tips, who confirmed that yes, their teabags contain plastic).

Revelation Five: The World’s gone Mad

This is the final revelation: something I discovered yesterday. You can now buy tea in individual plastic pods (like the coffee pods)!

Tea pods

Individual portions of tea in individual single-use plastic pods. What a waste. Photo borrowed from my friend Amy.

These aren’t teabags containing plastic, they’re worse! Individual plastic pods with single portions of tea! What’s wrong with the world? How hard is it to use a teabag? A plastic-free one, actually, might be fairly hard. Okay then, how about just using a teapot and strainer?!

 The Solution: Drink Loose Leaf Tea!

The best zero-waste option for tea drinkers everywhere is to make the switch from teabags to tea leaves. The tea is superior quality and tastes far better, and you’re helping keep plastic out of the environment.

Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!

Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!

Now I want to hear from you! Did you know that teabags contained plastic? Are you as mad as me about this?! Do you use teabags or are you already a loose leaf tea drinker? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Footnote – Because of the popularity of this post, I wrote another in 2018 with more details as to exactly what is in each type of teabag, and how you can tell if they contain plastic or not. More details here.

A Movie Review: Trashed

On Tuesday night I went to a movie night hosted by Transition Town Guildford for the documentary Trashed. Released in 2012 and featuring Jeremy Irons, Trashed explores the extent of the global waste problem, and the consequences – including pollution in beautiful and uninhabited environments, the health risks to animals, humans and children, and the contamination of the oceans.

When I say ‘explores’, this movie does not just skim the surface. It gets right in there. It’s a powerful film, and it gets the point across that we need to change the way we do things. If you’re not convinced before the film, you won’t be left with any doubt afterwards that waste is a serious problem – and it affects all of us.

Featuring farmers from France and Iceland, hospital works in Vietnam, and waste disposal sites in the UK, Lebanon and Indonesia, it is clear that this is a global issue.

Here’s the trailer:

I loved the message, the depth of the science and the exploration of the facts. It was hard-hitting and some people, particularly those who aren’t already aware of the issues surrounding waste may find it pretty confronting. They tried to end on a positive note, bringing the movie back from the feeling of impending doom, with just enough positivity for the audience to leave without feeling like it was all too hard and all too much. But only just.

My only real criticism was the lack of exploration of the issues surrounding recycling. Clearly there wasn’t space to cover everything, but I felt that plastic recycling in particular could have been further addressed. At the end of the film they show huge bales of plastic waiting to go to China (from San Fransisco) for recycling, but no mention is made of the issues of transporting huge amounts of plastic across the ocean, nor the hazardous processes involved with recycling the plastic in countries with less stringent safety regulations.

Particularly after they talked in length of the dangers of burning waste, I felt this was a glaring omission.

The other interesting point is that this segment of the film was recorded in 2009. Back then, China was a huge buyer of plastic waste, but the plastic shipments were often contaminated with non-recyclable plastic and other debris, and in February 2013 China has cracked down on this with Operation Green Fence, meaning all plastics must be washed and uncontaminated. All shipments are inspected on arrival, and if they are contaminated they are sent back, with the sender incurring the cost. In the first 3 months, 7600 tons of waste were rejected.

I’d definitely recommend watching it, but if you’re new to the issues of waste, you might find it gentler starting with the Clean Bin Project or my all-time favourite, Bag it!.

If you’re interested in hosting a screening of your own, you can find the details on the Trashed website.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think? Did you find it motivating, or did you think they stepped over the line into Doomsday-ville? If you haven’t seen it, what were your thoughts after watching the trailer? Leave me a comment; I’d love to hear what you think!

As seen on Ethical Superstore and Plastic Free July…

If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have missed some exciting news… I’m spreading my message and expanding my writing beyond this site! I’m currently writing a series of blog posts for the Ethical Superstore. So far three have been published, and there’s a few more in the pipeline.

If you want to read them, here are the links:

Treading My Own Path, Rethinking Waste and the Two New Kids

Not Just About the Chocolate…Can Electronics Be Fair Trade too?

Plastic Free July: Will You Accept the Challenge?

Whilst the messages are something you’ll probably recognise if you visit the site regularly, the content is completely new – no rehashing of old material from me!

In addition, I’m also writing a couple of posts for Plastic Free July’s 2014 campaign. They’re not ready for publishing yet, so keep your eye out!

Whilst I’m on the topic of Plastic Free July, I thought I’d mention the other exciting thing about this year’s 2014 campaign: the Bring One Get One Tree initiative which features my other half as poster boy extraordinaire! It is a local campaign to try to encourage more cafes to participate in reducing their packaging consumption.

You may remember I wrote a few weeks ago about him taking part in a photoshoot. Whilst I write away furiously about whatever hair-brained scheme I’ve concocted for the week ahead (zero-waste week anyone?), Glen is behind-the-scenes putting up with it all – and quietly taking his own bags, his own reusable coffee cup, his reusable cutlery set, and refusing straws and other plastic.

Plastic Free July asked him to feature as their “suited businessman” for the campaign, so now is his chance to shine! Bring1Get1tree posters-shopsI’m not sure he’ll thank me for sharing, but I am in a sharing mood this afternoon it seems!

If you get a chance to read any of my Ethical Superstore blog posts I’d love to hear what you think! You can comment on their site or comment here. Also, if you have any thoughts for future blog posts I could write for them I’d love to hear your ideas!

Choosing Electricity that’s Greener (Sort Of)

One of the first things we did when we knew we were moving was to revisit our energy bills, and look into green power. Now you might be thinking, surely we were already buying green power? But actually, no, we weren’t.

When I lived in England I had both my electricity and gas supplied by Ecotricity. Ecotricity describe themselves as Britain’s leading green energy supplier, and when they launched in 1996 they were the world’s first green electricity company (you can read more about their history here). They supply UK households with electricity made from wind and solar, and they are looking into using wave power too. They are also looking into producing green gasmills that use renewable sources to make gas (such as organic material and algae). They have planning permission to build their first green gasmill, but in the meantime they promise that all gas supplied will not come from shale, meaning it is frack free.

Moving from the UK to Western Australia, however, meant I no longer had this option. In fact, I had no options at all. Energy supply is heavily regulated here, meaning there is only one electricity company and one gas company. They don’t even offer a range of tariffs. The electricity provider, Synergy, is actually owned by the Western Australian government and they offer one plan – the (uninspiringly titled) Home Plan.

Alinta (the gas supplier) don’t offer any green options at all, but Synergy offer “Green Energy”. It may sound good, but we’re not talking solar power or renewables From Synergy as such. We’re talking certificates.

As Synergy tell me on their website: “When you choose to purchase EasyGreen or NaturalPower, Synergy will use your premiums to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) from nationally accredited GreenPower renewable energy sources. The RECs purchased will match the amount of your EasyGreen or NaturalPower contribution.”

My understanding of what this means: Synergy will continue to burn fossil fuels to produce my electricity, but they’ll spend the extra that I’m willing to pay on pieces of paper (RECs) that “prove” that Synergy are being green (after all, they’re getting a certificate – what says proof more than that?). They get these certificates by giving my money to other companies who produce green energy (according to this list Synergy don’t own any green power generators themselves). These pieces of paper are issued by the government, and Synergy are buying these certificates with my money – so effectively I’m just reimbursing the government and Synergy is getting the credit. I wonder what the government does with the revenue from these certificates…dredge the Great Barrier Reef to sell more coal?

Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the scheme. Have a look at the explanation GreenPower have on their website for how the scheme works:

How GreenPower WorksCould it be any more complicated and confusing?! I have no understanding of what this means either, but I’m not getting good vibes from this diagram! Seems like too much regulation and too little action to me!

In spite of my distrust for these certification schemes, I’ve signed up for NaturalPower anyway. Why, if I’m so skeptical?

  • It may not be Ecotricity, but its something, and something is better than nothing.
  • I need to make the best of what options are available to me.
  • I want to send a message that renewables are something that I support, and something that I want to see more of.
  • I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t have a roof to install my own solar panels (ah, one day…) so this is how I can contribute.

The NaturalPower scheme that Synergy offers means we can contribute up to 100% of our consumption to purchase RECs. We’ve opted to contribute the full 100%. We use 5 units of electricity every day, which will mean our bill will go up $1.76 a week.

Green Power Square Image

Now I don’t like paying more for energy than I have to… who does?! But I also believe in using our money to shape the kind of world we want to live in. I’m happy to pay the green premium, but I still want to pay as little as possible. In order to get my bill down I need to look at my electricity usage and see if there’s any way we can reduce it further. We’re already pretty good in this department, but a fresh look at everything won’t hurt! I’ve got a blog post coming soon on ways to reduce your electricity consumption in the home, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

My thought for the day: Don’t let the pursuit of perfection hold you back from taking action. Synergy’s NaturalPower scheme is definitely not perfect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction…

Right, I’m off to dream of off-grid living and solar panels!

What do you think about green energy tariffs? Do you think they’re a scam or do you think they’re helping renewable energy become more mainstream and accepted? Have I totally misunderstood the REC scheme?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve decided that I need a new phone.

Need, I hear you say? Do I actually need a new phone?

Good question.

My current phone is an iPhone 3GS. I purchased it as a refurbished phone in January 2010. In phone life, that’s old. iPhone have released 8 different models since they launched, and the iPhone 3GS was the 3rd one they released. Since then, they’ve updated the iPhone 5 times, each model being better than its predecessor.

iPhone Comparison

Yet in real life, four years is not old, and the fact that I’m thinking about replacing it seems ridiculous!

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Or so the saying goes. And whilst on a basic level my phone still functions – it can make and receive calls, the battery still works – it has some problems. It deletes my entire contacts list at least once a month. It crashes at least once a day. The software is corrupted, so I cannot update to a new operating system, nor restore the original settings.

This means that I can’t download new apps, update existing ones or generally use my phone as a smartphone. This is annoying. I realise there are more pressing problems in the world. I know there are people who would argue that a mobile phone is just for making calls, and all this smartphone stuff is unnecessary.

However, I find my smartphone useful. Not having a car, I use public transport a lot and I like being able to check my email, manage my blog and read the news via my phone. We don’t have a television, so my smartphone helps me stay in touch with what is going on in the world. If I didn’t have a smartphone, of course I’d manage. But what I find particularly frustrating is having a smartphone, but one that doesn’t really work properly. That is the worst possible combination!

What are the options if it IS broken?

I really don’t want to buy a new phone. More virgin materials, more unnecessary plastic packaging, and another step on the consumer treadmill. Having to research where the phone was manufactured, where the minerals were mined and whether the workers are fairly paid. And goodness, they’re expensive! A new unlocked sim-only phone (without a contract) costs almost as much as a computer! Then again, it is a computer. A very small one.

Second-hand isn’t a perfect solution though, particularly with mobile phones. I don’t want to buy anything stolen or damaged, and there is no security and a lot of money lost if something goes wrong. Then again, I’ve bought enough electronic items second-hand, as have many people I know, and none of us have ever been ripped off.

The bigger issue, for me, is that I want a high-tech, up-to-date mobile phone. Whatever I buy, I want it to last at least another four years! This means finding a phone that has been released fairly recently. There are plenty for sale, but they aren’t for sale because their owners have seen the light and have decided smartphones aren’t for them; instead they’re selling so they can get another new smartphone. They want to sell their iPhone so they can buy the latest Samsung, or sell their Samsung because they want the latest HTC.

Is this really any better than me buying a new phone in the first place? The consumer treadmill goes on, and I’m still contributing.

Surely there must be a better way?

Buying new – with a difference

What I want is a smartphone with social values. Wishful thinking?

Actually, no.

Fairphone

Social values, environmental responsibility and fair trade are the thinking behind Fairphone, a mobile phone with a difference. Different because they are all about opening up the supply chain, using conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers are fairly paid, and designing a phone that can be used, repaired and recycled responsibly. yes, repaired. They sell spare parts on their website, and have teamed up with iFixit to offer repair guides so people can fix their own phones. No built-in obsolescence here!

Fairphone Spare Parts

When I say “spare parts”, I’m not just talking about the battery and the headphones either!

Here’s what they believe:

Mining: We believe in conflict-free, fair resources that put people first. We’re starting with conflict-free minerals from the DRC that support families, not armed militias.

Design: We’re making phones that are built to last using open, responsible design. We want consumers to have true ownership of their phones, including how they use and configure them.

Manufacturing: Factory workers deserve safe conditions, fair wages and worker representation. We work closely with manufacturers that want to invest in employee wellbeing.

Lifecycle: We’re addressing the full lifespan of mobile phones, including use, reuse and safe recycling. We believe that our responsibility doesn’t end with sales.

The people behind Fairphone don’t think of the Fairphone as a phone, they think of it as a movement. Their vision is to start new relationships between people and their products by showing where stuff comes from and how it’s made. They want us to make informed decisions about what we buy.

Fairphone’s first phone was launched a year ago as a crowdfunding campaign with a target of selling 5,000 phones. They smashed their goal and 25,000 people pre-ordered the Fairphone.

A year later and they’ve just announced a new batch of 35,000 phones available for ordering (NB they currently only deliver within Europe). Last time round, I wasn’t quite ready to switch my dying iPhone. This time, I am. I’ve placed my order, and shipping is expected to begin in July.

The most sustainable mobile phone is always going to be the one you already have. But the Fairphone seems like a pretty good second choice.

The Age of Sustainable Development

On Monday afternoon I went to a lecture about The Age of Sustainable Development. I’m normally fairly skeptical of these men-in-suits type events, but this one caught my eye. It’s good to get out there occasionally and hear what the men-in-suits have to say.

The lecture was by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. Actually, Wikipedia tells me that he has a whole lot of other impressive credentials, including Special Advisor to the UN on the Millennium Development Goals, Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and has twice been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Ticket

Before the lecture began, a video was played entitled “Sustainability at Curtin University” (the WA university hosting the lecture) which I found rather uninspiring. It had the familiar messages about sustainability that make me cringe when I hear them: that sustainability means value for money for industry; that sustainability innovation means efficiency, which passes on to the mining industry; and that we can invent and innovate our way out of the pending crises of climate change, resource depletion, water shortages and extreme weather conditions.

It’s not that I disagree that technology and science have important roles to play. I just felt that the underlying message was “business as usual”, and in my opinion, no amount of streamlining and resourcefulness is going to make up for the fact that we still expect infinite growth, and we still live on a finite planet.

I’m glad to say the lecture was far more inspiring. It was refreshing to hear Professor Jeffery Sachs, one of the men-in-suits, stand up on stage and say that we can’t have unlimited growth on a finite planet, that climate change is real, it is happening NOW, we have our backs against the wall and we need to act immediately.

Of course, it was also quite alarming.

Professor Sachs said that America is more divided than at any time in history – meaning the gap between the rich and poor is widening, and inequality is widening. He referred to a book entitled Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America by Martin Gilens, who found that the opinions of the bottom 90% of people in America had no impact on policy making in America.

Only the top 10%, the really rich, have any real influence over government.

I imagine it’s a similar case in many other places. The Australian budget was announced last week, and it has been described as the harshest and most unpopular federal budget in two nearly decades. The main beneficiaries were the super rich and big business; election promises were broken, and people are angry.

Governments, Professor Sachs concluded, aren’t going to lead the way. They’ve been talking about sustainable development for over 20 years, he said, and they’re still talking about it, but they aren’t doing anything. Events are changing a lot faster than our institutions.

The solution he offered: universities are going to have to lead the way. Young people (who generally “get” the sustainability message more than older generations, he said) are going to have to lead the way. We need massive energy efficiency; we need electrification of vehicles and heating. We need to make carbon sequestration work on a massive scale, or we need to stop burning coal. We need a strategy. Carbon taxes aren’t strategies, they are tools.

It’s easy to sit in lectures like this and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems the world faces. The world is a big place, and it’s easy to feel small and helpless. But overall, I felt that Professor Sachs had a positive message: yes, we are facing a challenge, and yes, the government isn’t ready to anything about it, but we can still make change happen.

It is reassuring to know that some of the men-in-suits, these people with authority, power and influence, actually understand… and not only that, they are doing something about it. Professor Sachs is touring Australia as part of a global project for the UN trying to map strategies for countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly, in a way that will keep global warming below 2 degrees (considered the limit of safe rises). In September, New York is hosting a World Leaders Climate Meeting; an attempt to build momentum towards December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris. Professor Sachs thinks the Paris meeting is our ”last chance” for the world to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

To me, the lecture felt like a call to action. We can’t just sit back and watch our governments continue with “business as usual”. No way!

“Achieving sustainable development will be the great challenge of the coming generation.” ~Professor Jeffrey Sachs

Best get to it then…there’s no time to waste!

Cardboard Castles, Celebrity Coffee and Social Contracts

I had a busy, productive and inspiring weekend. Don’t you just love those weekends? It nearly didn’t happen – I’d been brewing a cold/virus for the previous few days – but in the end the sun was shining and it all worked out perfectly.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.

The Celebrity Photo Shoot

Well, not exactly “celebrity”, but my boyfriend has been asked to be one of the faces for the new Plastic Free July campaign, which meant a photoshoot at 9.30am on Saturday morning along the main shopping strip where we live. So Glen spent 30 minutes pacing up and down past the shops, whilst a guy with the longest camera lens I’ve ever seen snapped pictures, and Rebecca (from the Plastic Free July campaign) and I looked on. As did a few other Saturday morning shoppers; it’s interesting how people are drawn to the camera.

No-one asked for his autograph though, which I found disappointing.

Annoyingly, I forgot to take my camera, so I’m going to have to wait for the official ones to be ready before I can share them. Hopefully not too long to wait!

The Mosman Park Eco Fair

The Mosman Park Eco Fair is a glorious day out; set in the beautiful community gardens at St Luke’s Church in Mosman Park, featuring all things green, including sustainability workshops, ethical and environmental stalls and with a real focus on reducing waste.

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer, but after organising the Less is More Festival not too long before, it’s nice to go to an event as a punter and be able to enjoy everything that’s on offer.

The Earth Carers have a big presence as always. In addition to running their Washing Up Station to reduce disposable cups at the event, they also ran a children’s activity – make cardboard castles!

CardboardBoxes

EcoFair2

I wrote about the Washing Up Station at last year’s event (and why I think it’s so important here), but the castle-building was a new activity and a very popular one!

It was really great to catch up with so many people I know, as well as learn about all of the interesting projects that people are involved in, and hear about their latest achievements. Personally, I find it really inspiring and motivating reconnect with people from my community, and I always feel like my passion is re-ignited afterwards.

Permaculture Day

Sunday was International Permaculture Day, and there were some workshops at one of the local Farmer’s markets. I’ve been wanting to learn about beekeeping for ages, and made the effort to trek across town on a rather chilly morning for the 8.30am workshop. It was so interesting! Something to save for another blog post, but I felt a real sense of achievement in having taken a step closer.

My Glass Jar Trade

A few weeks ago I nearly put some of my glass jars into the recycling. In fact I did put them in, but then I took them out again. Most glass in Perth isn’t actually recycled (it’s trucked to Adelaide, turned into road base or landfilled) and I was sure that someone could use those jars. Just after I retrieved them, a friend requested jars for bottling her honey. I exchanged several of my finest jars in exchange for one jar of her finest honey. An awesome trade! I wouldn’t have got that from the recycling peeps!

Honey

Even better, once home I turned the honey into a delicious cake. Yum!

CakeThe cake is a chocolate pear rosemary cake that’s gluten- and dairy-free. You can find the recipe here; I used honey rather than sugar and it was perfect!

The Social Contract

In my last blog post I mentioned that I didn’t have a “no junk mail” sticker on my mail box. I know I needed one, I’ve been talking about it for months, but I could never quite get round to getting one. In fact, I didn’t just mention it once, I mentioned it 3 times. I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

Why? Because if you have an intention, there is nothing better than to tell EVERYONE your intention. Comments were made to me both on the blog and on Facebook about how should get a “junk mail” sticker. People taking an interest not only reinforces what I already know (that I need to get a sticker), but also makes me feel guilt and shame for not getting on with it. I don’t want to be asked by these same people over the next few months whether I’ve got one and have to say no – so this is a great way to force yourself into action!

I’m pleased to say I’ve been and got a new sticker. No more junk mail for me! Except, it still needs to be stuck on. A minor detail!

JunkMail

So that was my weekend. How was yours?!

Plastics and Health: Phthalates

Plastic was the wonder product of the 1960s. Strong yet lightweight; durable yet inexpensive; plastics made everyday items affordable to the less well-off and revolutionized consumerism. The popularity of plastic means today it has become the manufacturing material of choice. After all, it’s so versatile. Plastics can be transparent, translucent, opaque; they can be coloured and patterned; they can be molded into any shape.

A true wonder product? Or not?

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Sadly, plastics are no exception. I’ve talked about the fact they last forever and the problems that come once their useful life is over (you can read about that here). But what about during their life?

It turns out that plastic isn’t the inert, safe material that was once thought. Chemicals added into plastic to instill specific properties can leach back out… and they’re entering our food, our water and our bodies. Plastic is affecting our health.

I’ve already talked about BPA, one of the additives used that has been found to leach from plastic – an additive linked to cancer and developmental problems in children. (You can read more about BPA here). Now I want to talk about another group of additives that have gained a lot of bad press: phthalates.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals, sometimes called plasticizers, added to plastic to make them soft and malleable. They are a particularly common additive to PVC (plastic type #3). Without plasticisers, PVC is rigid (this is sometimes called uPVC, meaning unplasticised PVC, and is used for building materials and window frames).

Where are Phthalates found?

PVC is used for all kinds of products. If a plastic PVC product is flexible, unless the packaging states that it does not contain phthalates, the chances are that it does.

Plastic wrap (cling film/Glad wrap) is typically made out of PVC.

So are many children’s toys, clothing and school supplies, including lunchboxes and eating utensils, school bags, pencil cases, ring binders and folders, raincoats and umbrellas.

PVC is also found in households as furniture, flooring, shower curtains, wallpaper and electronics.

Baby products including sippy cups and bottles, squeezy toys and changing mats also contain phthalates, although since 1999 in Europe and 2009 in the US, some phthalates have been banned from baby and children’s products because of the negative health implications.

Not Just Plastic…

Phthalates are not just found in plastic. They are also found in many beauty products, including shampoo, lotions, perfumes, hair gel, nail polish and deodorant. They help make lotions feel smooth, mix better and increase absorption into the skin.

You may not see them on the labels either: the law permits them to be labelled as ”fragrance”.

Why are Phthalates bad?

Phthalates don’t actually chemically bind to the plastic they’re mixed with, meaning that phthalates are released from plastic products over time. This occurs more rapidly as a result of heat, exposure to solvents and friction.

Have you noticed how soft plastics get increasingly hard and brittle over time? That’s because the phthalates have leached out of them.

Some phthalates are particularly attracted to fats, and food products with a high fat content such as cheese, meat and other dairy wrapped in PVC film have been found to contain notably high levels of phthalates.

Phthalates enter our bodies via ingestion, but also inhalation and absorption through the skin. As well as being detected in blood, sweat and urine, they have been found in breast milk and are known the cross the placenta. We are widely exposed to phthalates because PVC is such a widely distributed material.

Children are more exposed because they spend time playing on floors, many children’s toys are made from PVC, and children are more likely to put plastic products in their mouths. This is compounded because they are much smaller than adults so the toxic loading increases.

Women are also more susceptible because of their use of beauty products containing phthalates.

Like BPA, phthalates are now known to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic hormones in the body. Phthalates have been linked to increased obesity, liver damage, reproductive disorders, asthma and development issues in children. The phthalate DEHP has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the US EPA, meaning it is likely to cause cancer. Studies have linked phthalates to breast cancer.

 How can I avoid Phthalates?

There’s plenty of things you can do to avoid exposure to phthalates. Here’s just a few ideas to get started:

1. Avoid PVC (plastic #3, also sometimes written as V within the recycling arrow). If you need to buy products made of plastic, look for plastics #1, #2 and #5 as these are considered “safer” plastics. Or skip the plastic altogether. Choose products made from wood, metal, glass or natural fibres.

2. Don’t use plastic wrap! Whilst safer alternatives that are phthalate-free do now exist, how long before these safer ingredneits are exposed to be hazardous too? Plastic wrap is really unneccessary. Store food in tins, jars, in glass or pyrex, or simply in a bowl with a plate on top.Try not to buy cheese or meat that’s been wrapped in PVC film either – take your own container, ask for it to be wrapped in paper or look for non-PVC plastic packaging.

3. Choose safe cosmetics. Look for certified organic products; a product that says “contains natural/organic ingredients” may still contain many chemicals. Choose products with fewer ingredients, preferably ones that you have heard of! Seek out products fragranced only with essential oils. Find local producers that make small batches using natural ingredients; you can speak to them about exactly what does and doesn’t go into their products. If you want to know how safe the products you are already using are, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database of over 68,000 products. Question whether there’s any products you use that you could actually do without. Simplify.

4. Look for phthalate-free children’s toys and clothes, and remember if buying second-hand that phthalates were not banned before 2009, so older products may still contain these chemicals. Be particularly wary of school supplies. Anything shiny, glossy and waterproof is probably made of PVC.

5. Eat organic. Phthalates are found in pesticides, and also in sewage sludge (remember phthalates are found in urine). Organic farms are not permitted to use either of these and so organic crops are less exposed to phthalates than conventional crops.