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Learn skills + share them: how to take action in times of uncertainty

I’ve always been fascinated by skills. Particularly hands-on ones. I’m in awe of people who have skills that I do not – like the shoe man (not a sexist gender assign – the two brothers who run the shoe repair place at my local shopping centre call their business ‘The Shoe Man’), or people who know how to sew, or make things with wood or clay, can fix things, or weave, or, or…

The more turmoil there is in the world, the more I’m drawn to learning skills. Knowing how to do things, even simply understanding how things work, gives me a sense of control (and comfort) in times of uncertainty.

I’m not trying to be completely self-sufficient – in fact, I don’t believe that’s a thing. I know that us humans need each other way more than we’d like to admit. No-one can excel at all the things. Having skills is not about self-sufficiency but self-reliance and community resilience: we need to share the skills we have with others and look after one another.

One of the best things about my zero waste journey has been learning new skills. There are still so many I’d like to tackle (weaving! basket making! grafting!) but I’ve definitely added a few to the toolbox over the years.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity, and comforted that I can draw on them now.

I wanted to share the skills I have not to blow my own trumpet (I can’t play the trumpet! Not a skill I have!) but to get you thinking about the skills you have, and the skills you want to have.

And then, I want to persuade you to share them (but we’ll get to that at the end).

Soap making

This is one of my newer skills (not shared on the blog yet as I’m still at the learning stage) but it’s what inspired me to write this post. With the coronavirus pandemic, a few things have been consistently selling out at the stores – tinned tomatoes, rice, pasta, toilet paper… and soap.

I’ve needed to make a batch for a while, but it takes a few weeks to cure (and harden – which makes it last longer) – and before the making happened, I ran out. So I asked my friend (who is a prolific soap maker) if she had any spare from her previous batch, and she did.

Three bars of soap, no need to go to the shop, no panic rushing around because everywhere was sold out.

Soon I’ll schedule myself a soap making weekend – and one batch will last me most of the year. (If you want some motivation to give it a go, good old-fashioned soap kills coronavirus. Here’s the science.)

DIY skincare

I make a few of my own products from scratch. I’m a big fan of simple, no fuss, easy recipes that require no specialist equipment and ideally use edible ingredients (meaning I can raid my pantry).

I don’t make everything from scratch all of the time. Recently I purchased some toothpaste because I just couldn’t bring myself to make it – even though it’s a two-minute job. (It’s just that there are always a hundred two-minute jobs that need doing, and this one never got higher up the list.)

But if toothpaste runs out at the store, I won’t panic – I’ll make my own.

I you’re interested, these are the things I make and recipes I use:

DIY toothpaste recipe

DIY deodorant recipe

Alternative deodorant recipe (sodium bicarbonate/baking soda free)

Cold cream moisturiser (can also be used as eye make-up remover and cleanser)

DIY zinc cream (used as sunscreen)

I use a shampoo soap bar (which I buy) and a vinegar rinse to wash my hair; prior to this I used bicarb or rye flour in place of shampoo, and it worked well. I’d happily switch back if I couldn’t buy the soap.

If you’re curious, find out how washing your hair with bicarb and vinegar works.

(Oh, and I use white vinegar, which I buy, but I could easily switch to apple cider vinegar, which I make. It’s super easy and you just need apple cores, a bit of sugar and a jar. Link to DIY apple cider vinegar recipe here.)

Learning to cook

I think knowing how to cook is a really underrated skill. I’ve learned to cook over time (because nobody is born with this knowledge!), but going zero waste really next-levelled my cooking game, because I no longer wanted to buy those pre-packaged and convenience foods in plastic – and so I had to learn how to make my own, from scratch.

I don’t think I’d ever cooked a dry lentil or bean before starting out on this zero waste adventure. Turns out, if you can boil water, you can cook lentils. They are cheap, nutritious and delicious. They also expand up to three times when soaked and cooked (both economical and space-saving – a single packet of lentils takes up much less space in the pantry than the equivalent in cans).

Despite knowing how to cook most of the things, there are still days when dinner consists of toast (I’m not proud) or a bowl of pasta with lemon juice, lemon zest, capers, olive oil and parsley. But importantly, the skills to make things are there.

And there’s always more to learn. I’m keen to try making tofu and tempeh. I said that last year. (Oh, and the year before…) Slowly, slowly.

Learning to grow food

I’ve been growing some of my own food for 10+ years (not all of my own food, not even close!) although I had to relearn much of what I knew when I moved from the UK – where I started out – to Perth, which has a completely different climate.

From an allotment to a small balcony, to a bigger balcony, to community gardens and a community orchard, and now my own back yard, there have been lots of lessons.

With the space to now grow fruit trees, I’m excited for the next stage.

But even in the days with the smallest balcony, there were a few herbs. Something alive and edible. Even without land of our own, it’s usually possible to grow something. Microgreens are another good place to start.

Learning to forage

Another useful aspect of growing food is learning to recognise plants, as there are a surprising number of edible plants and fruit trees on public land. Within walking distance of my place there’s an almond tree and a pecan tree (although good luck beating the birds to those), a fig tree, and several lilli pillies. There are also several overhanging fruit trees – lemons, macadamias and mangoes.

If there’s a black stain on the pavement, there will be a mulberry tree above your head.

(When I was in the UK, brambles – which grow blackberries – were in hedgerows everywhere. There were some apple trees in the square next to where I worked. And mushroom gathering is a growing pastime – one I sadly didn’t embrace before I left.)

Plus, wherever you are… a lot of edible weeds. Which is a whole other food source – and one that grows rather prolifically! Maybe this is a skill reserved for the zombie apocalypse… but you never know, and it’s good to be prepared ;)

Learning to preserve

I learned to preserve when I first got my allotment, because if you grow food you will grow more than you can eat. Things only last so long in the fridge, and there is only so much space in the freezer. Plus freezing vegetables doesn’t do much for them.

Preserving is a way of making things last much longer – often without the need to refrigerate (although some preserves are better refrigerated). Many preserves will last upwards of a year – right around until the next harvest.

I started out learning how to make jams, pickles and chutneys. When I moved to Australia I learned to ferment (sourdough, yoghurt, vegan cheese and vegetables), and more recently got started with dehydrating.

When my fruit trees are cranking (well my future fruit trees – I don’t have many yet) I plan to get into canning – which requires some specialist equipment.

Learning to mend

I can sew a button back on. I can darn holes in my socks. My mending knowledge is no way near extensive (in fact, I’ve pretty much shared my arsenal of expertise) but I’m keen how to learn more about how to mend. Making things last is an excellent skill to have.

(My friend Erin, who is a marvellous mender, has just published her first book Modern Mending, pictured above. Reading and then trying out some of the techniques in this book is one of my goals for the year.)

Learning to share

I truly believe that this is the most important skill of all. Because setting yourself up for ‘self-sufficiency’ by keeping all your skills (and products of those skills) to yourself, and sitting back smugly whilst the world outside – and your neighbours – are struggling is a false victory indeed.

There’s some stuff I’m never going to make. No-one (or very few at least) has time to make all the things. Plus some stuff I find fun to make, other things I find useful to make, and yet more things I just don’t feel that need.

A week ago I gave my neighbour some eggs. A few day later there’s a knock on my door – she has made fresh pasta and has some for me! Pasta isn’t a thing I’d make, and chickens aren’t a thing she’d keep. Sharing skills (and the product of those skills) helped both of us.

(Oh, and she also made pasta for her neighbours on the other side, and the ones next to them.)

Other friends make kimchi, have DIY skills, own tools, can mend, and the list goes on.

Sharing is a skill I definitely want to work on more. I have some incredible generous friends, and neighbours, who give freely – and who inspire me to do more. It’s something I really want to focus on this year.

You’d think sharing might encourage others to take advantage, but I find the opposite happens. Sharing breeds generosity.

I’m offering this up as a solution because it’s worked for me. It’s something practical (and positive) that we can do with our energy and time. If you’re feeling anxious about the way the world is going, or you’re wondering what to do as we’re advised to stay home more, perhaps learning a new skill is a way to put that nervous energy into something productive.

And sharing (be it knowledge, or physical stuff) is a way to help others benefit from what you’ve learned.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What skills do you have, and what skills do you want to learn? Have you been able to share your skills with family, friends, colleagues or your wider comunity? Do you have any other ideas for building resilience in our communities? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

5 Bad Habits I Shook by Going Zero Waste

Often when we talk about the changes we’ve made since deciding to refuse single-use plastic, reduce our waste and/or live more sustainably, we focus on the products we buy (or no longer buy). There are plenty of articles online about ‘zero waste swaps’ and indeed, I’ve written a few myself.

I thought it might be interesting to change the focus slightly, and rather than talk about products, talk about habits. Now I’ve still got plenty of bad habits to shake (going zero waste does not make you a perfect human, alas), but luckily for me, embracing low waste living has enabled me to shake a few.

Throwing my food scraps in the trash.

That bin went to landfill, and I just thought that the landfill was a great big compost pile. I found out later it is most definitely not. It’s an engineered (and expensive to construct) depression in the ground that entombs waste without air, and creates a lot of methane instead.

Then there’s the fact that food makes for a stinky bin and attracts flies (particularly in hot climates), and needs hauling to the kerb every few days. Did you know that between 20 – 40% of everything the average householder throws away is food scraps?

Not to mention, I was throwing away my food scraps, and then buying plastic-wrapped bags of compost at the garden centre for my plants!

Setting up a worm farm, and then a compost bin, reduced my rubbish bin to almost nothing, solved the ‘how do I line my bin without plastic?’ problem (if there’s nothing stinky and wet going in the bin, it doesn’t need a liner) and gave me free nutrients for the garden.

There are so many solutions to dealing with food scraps. There are options whether you’ve got a garden, a balcony, or no outside space at all. There are options even if you can’t be bothered setting up and managing a system yourself.

Find more info here: How to compost without a compost bin.

Being ‘in love’ with my recycling bin.

Yep, I used to think that recycling was the best thing ever. (And pretty much that I was the best thing ever for filling it to the brim!) I saw that chasing arrow recycling symbol as my ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for packaging. ‘Oh it’s okay. It’s recyclable!’

It simply never occurred to me that I could say no to unnecessary packaging, refuse the excess, reduce what I did use and even rethink some of my choices for less wasteful alternatives.

As I’ve said often, recycling is a great place to start. But when I realised it was not the place to stop, and there was so much more I could be doing, that was when I really began to reduce my waste and my footprint.

Recycling – and learning how to recycle properly rather than chucking everything in and hoping for the best – that’s the first step. But it’s better to have an empty landfill bin and an empty recycling bin than an empty landfill bin and a recycling bin that’s overflowing.

Accepting free samples of everything.

I loved anything that was ‘free’. In fact, if somewhere was offering freebies, I’d quite often take one and then circle back round to take a second one. Because, free!

Cringe.

Whether it was sachets of moisturiser with real gold flakes in them (yes this was a real sample I once accepted), scented foot odour reducing insoles (again, a real thing) or any ‘free’ miniature or travel-sized thing whatsoever from any hotel, I was snaffling these thing up.

The old me thought all this stuff was great. It was duly popped in the cupboard and forgotten about. Yes, most of these freebies I didn’t even use. The new me just shakes her head at the old me.

What about all the resources? The pointlessness? The waste? The perpetuation of the cycle of more samples and free stuff?

Let’s just say, I don’t do that any more. I actually get more satisfaction now from refusing stuff than I ever did from taking it. (The only freebies I get excited about these days are my friends’ excess garden produce and cuttings from their plants which I’d like to grow in my garden.)

Taking ‘eco-friendly’ labels at face value.

Even before I went plastic-free and low waste, I’d buy all of the eco-friendly products. It was pretty easy, because so many products are labelled ‘eco-friendly’!

(Or if not ‘eco-friendly’, the equally eco-friendly sounding ‘green’. Bonus points – in my mind – for having an image of a green leaf on the packaging.)

It was only after I began to reduce my waste that I began to question these labels, and stopped taking them at face value.

There are no independently verified certification scheme for labels like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’. (Or ‘biodegradable’ for that matter, but I won’t go into that now. If you want to read more, you’ll find my post ‘is biodegradable plastic: is it really eco-friendly‘ a helpful read.)

Anyone can write labels like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ on their packaging. And they do!

Rather than let the person who designed the packaging tell me that a product is eco-friendly, I now prefer to do my own research. If a company is truly environmentally responsible, committed to sustainability and equitable in the way they do business, they will be able to back up their claims.

They will be transparent, happy to answer questions, eager to find out answers that they don’t already have, and keen to talk more!

If ever I write to a company claiming to be eco-friendly, and receive responses that are cagey, defensive or hostile, I choose not to support those companies.

That’s not to say I can always find all the answers. But I make an effort and try to be conscious in my choices.

Waiting for ‘somebody else to do something about that.’

Before I decided to reduce my single-use and other plastic, I was the person picking all the overpackaged things off the supermarket shelves and muttering how ridiculous it was, and how somebody should do something about that, whilst piling those same things into my trolley.

I thought it was up to the manufacturers to change their packaging. I thought it was up to the stores not to sell these items. It did not cross my mind that I also had a role to play in this, and a way to influence change – I could just not buy them.

I don’t think it is solely the responsibility of individuals to create change. But we buy things and support (or don’t support) brands and companies, and companies pay attention. We can apply pressure, start conversations, write letters, share the good and try to hold the bad to account.

I don’t have the empirical evidence, but I’m pretty sure that nobody ever successfully influenced change by muttering under their breath. Nor by doing the exact thing they were complaining about.

It feels so much better to be doing something, and trying, however small that ‘something’ might be.

Embracing a life with less waste might not have ironed out all my flaws, but it’s definitely helped me shake some bad habits along the way.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What bad habits (if any) have you kicked through reducing your rubbish and trying to live more sustainably? Any bad habits you’re trying to shake that are still a work-in-progress? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!