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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!

Compostable plastics and bioplastics – and why they aren’t the “green” solution

Bioplastics and compostable plastics are sold to us as a green, sustainable solution. The solution to what, exactly? A solution to the tons of rubbish we send to landfill every year? A reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels? A safe alternative to the hazardous chemicals we add to conventional plastics? Actually, not quite. There’s a lot more controversy to these new plastics than you might think. Did you know that some bioplastics aren’t actually biodegradable, or even recyclable? Did you know that some compostable plastics are actually made from fossil fuels? Did you know that these plastics still require additives to infer specific properties (and to encourage degradation), and these additives may still be toxic?

Confused?

So was I. Fortunately, after a heck of a lot of reading and research, I’m feeling a lot clearer about it all, and hopefully after reading this, you will be too.

First up… Bioplastics

Bioplastics are plastics made from plants. That is all it means. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be compostable, and they may or may not be toxic as a result of other chemicals used in their manufacture.

Photo credit: Kingstonist.com via Flickr.

Photo credit: Kingstonist.com via Flickr. Making a difference…what does this statement mean? Is it biodegradable? Compostable? Recyclable? Messages like this are confusing!

The Terms: Biodegradable vs Degradable

Biodegradable means capable of being broken down by bacteria or other living organisms and returning to compounds found in nature. Degradable means capable of being broken down into smaller pieces. This is not the same as biodegradable. Photodegradable means capable of being broken down into smaller pieces by sunlight. Plastic generally breaks down into microplastics that do not break down further. Most plastics are therefore degradable, but not biodegradable.

Plastic #4 (LDPE or low density polyethylene) is made from fossil fuels; it is not biodegradable ,it is not compostable and it is not commonly recycled. Yes, it will degrade over time into thousands of micro pieces of plastic. How is that environmentally-friendly?

Plastic #4 (LDPE or low density polyethylene) is made from fossil fuels; it is not biodegradable, it is not compostable and it is not commonly recycled. Yes, it will degrade over time into thousands of micro pieces of plastic. How is that environmentally-friendly? Beware of greenwashing!

More Terms: Compostable vs Biodegradable

Compostable means capable of breaking down in a compost pile. Compostable plastic [as defined by the plastics industry] is “that which is capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials”.  ‘Carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass’ technically includes every substance in the known universe and this definition allows compostable plastic to leave toxic residues whilst still being classified as compostable.

A plastic may be biodegradable but not compostable, meaning it will break down more slowly than would be expected in a compost pile, and may not disintegrate.

Commercial Composting vs Home Composting

Compostable bioplastics may require industrial composting facilities to break down. This means an active composting phase of a minimum of 21 days, with temperatures remaining above 60ºC for at least 7 days, and regular turning. Industrial composting works much faster and better than home composting systems, which generally do not reach the same high temperatures and are not regulated.

It is not always clear with compostable packaging whether an item can be composted at home or whether it needs an industrial composting system, and whether such systems exist. BioPak cups state “compostable and biodegradable” on their packaging, but a quick look at their website finds the disclaimer “BioCup are compostable in a commercial compost facility; however this option is not widely available in Australia”. This means most BioCups used in Australia will end up in landfill, where they won’t break down.

Corn compostable cup after 2 years of composting

Compostable Corn Cups After 2 Years in a Compost Bin

Photo credit: Zane Selvans via Flickr. These Caltech cups are made from corn-based plastic. Caltech don’t compost these themselves (so most will be sent to landfill). To see how compostable they were, Zane put six of the cups in his very active compost pile at home (which reached 70°C a couple of times) and left them for two years. After two years, this is what they looked like.

Biodegradable Plastic

There are two categories of biodegradable plastic, and only one is made from plant materials (bioplastic). The other one is made from petrochemicals (this means fossil fuels).

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is a petroleum-based plastic made from fossil fuels (usually oil and natural gas) with metal salt additives that enables the plastic to degrade when subject to certain environment conditions. This is a two-stage process: following fragmentation, the plastic biodegrades by the action of microorganisms.

Some critics argue that oxo-biodegradable plastics are not actually biodegradable at all, because it is not clear how microorganisms actually break down the microplastics. If polymer residues remain alongside biomass, this would be disintegration rather than biodegradation.

Hydro-biodegradable plastics are plastics made from plant sources such as starch. Hydro-biodegradable plastics tend to degrade and biodegrade somewhat more quickly than oxo-biodegradable ones but the end result is the same – both are converted to carbon dioxide, water and biomass. Hydro-biodegradable plastics can be industrially composted.

PLA (polylactic acid) is the most commonly used bioplastic (polylactic acid) and costs 20% more than regular plastic. PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is a more temperature resistant bioplastic, and the only bioplastic that will decompose in soil and waterways, but it is more than double the price of regular plastic and less common. PLA will not biodegrade in waterways or the ocean.

 What about Recycling?

Oxo-biodegradable plastics cannot be recycled.

The bioplastic PLA can, in theory, be recycled. However, it is grouped under the plastic resin code #7, or “other” along with all other plastics that do not fit into the 6 major plastic types. (Click here to read about the different plastic categories in more detail). This means it needs to be separated from the regular recycling stream which requires technology such as infrared to be sorted correctly. In fact, PLA plastics often contaminate other plastic recycling steams.

Photo credit: Fiona Moore via Flickr. A PLA 'Ingeo' bioplastic lid. Plastic type #7 (or 'other') is not recyclable.

Photo credit: Fiona Moore via Flickr. A PLA ‘Ingeo’ bioplastic lid. Plastic type #7 (or ‘other’) is not recyclable.

Additives

As with other plastics, bioplastics still require additives to infer specific properties, and these additives may not be biodegradable, or tested for safety. Natureworks, the largest manufacturer of PLA in the world, state on their website “Although PLA has an excellent balance of physical and rheological properties, many additives have been combined with it to further extend the range of properties achievable and thus optimize the material for specific end use applications.” For bottles made with their PLA ‘Ingeo’ plastic, Natureworks suggest these “basic” additives are used:

  • Toner and colourant: without additives ‘Ingeo’ is slightly yellow, and adding a toner can make the plastic colourless and more appealing to customers. Alternatively they may be used to make the plastic a different colour.
  • A reheat additive can be used to make the heating process more efficient whilst molding the bottles.
  • A UV Blocker will be required if the product is sensitive to UV light, or in order to prolong shelf life.
  • Oxygen absorbers can be added to protect products sensitive to oxygen.
  • A slip or process aid can be added to help prevent bottles scuffing and scratching during manufacture, packing and transport.

Anything else?

Manufacturing bioplastics is a complicated and energy-intensive process, and still depends on fossil fuels. In addition to the manufacturing processes themselves, energy is required to power farm machinery needed to sow and harvest crops used as the raw materials, and also for transportation. Fossil fuels are also used to make fertilisers and pesticides to used to increase crop yields.

Another question often raised is whether it is appropriate to use vast areas of land suitable for agriculture to grow crops to make plastic rather than for food production.

What about genetically modified food? NatureWorks, the largest PLA producer in the world, is an American company that uses corn to manufacture bioplastic. 30% of all corn grown in the USA is genetically modified, meaning GM corn is used in the manufacture of NatureWorks bioplastic. Whilst the final products are chemically altered and free from GM products, these bioplastics are still supporting the GM industry.

The Verdict?

Whether we’re talking conventional plastics or bioplastics, there’s nothing green or sustainable about using these materials for a matter of minutes and then throwing it away. Whilst bioplastics may have the potential to be composted and decrease the landfill burden, their manufacture and transportation is still hugely dependent on fossil fuels, and they still contain undeclared additives that may leach into our food, or our soils. The reality is that most of these bioplastics don’t end up in composting facilities, but head to straight to landfill, or worse, end up as litter.

If you truly want to be sustainable, don’t use plastic, and don’t use bioplastics either, especially for single-use disposable items. Simply bring your own.

Zero Waste Week…the Halfway Point

I’m halfway through my Zero Waste Week challenge, and things have been going pretty waste-free, although I must confess – some waste has managed to sneak in!

Things went well on Tuesday. I received my second thermal paper BPA-lined eftpos receipt (to tell if a receipt is printed on thermal paper, you can rub a coin or your fingernail on the paper – if it darkens then it is thermal paper). Much smaller than the Post Office one, but still waste.

receipt 2

No more waste came until Tuesday night, when one of our bamboo toothbrushes died. The thing with bamboo toothbrushes is that they decide when they’re fit for the bin, by releasing all of their bristles into your mouth. Yuck. Loose bristles are not pleasant. Once the bristles start falling out there’s no way I’m going to continue using it. Seriously, it’s that bad. Usually the toothbrush would end up in the bin – ironic as it’s meant to be environmentally friendly. Thing is, I can’t compost it because of the plastic bristles. What I could do is chop the head off and try to compost the handle. Alternatively, I’m trying to soak the brush to see if I can loosen the rest of the bristles, so I can separate them and save on waste.

The old toothbrush on the left, and a new one

The old toothbrush on the left, and a new one

Soaking to see if I can loosen the bristles and compost the wooden part.

Soaking to see if I can loosen the bristles and compost the wooden part.

Wednesday came, and we received our toilet roll order – all 48 rolls of it! The box will get reused, and the paper and rolls get added to the wormfarm.Toilet RollI should probably add that my zero waste week does not extend to toilet paper. I’m still using regular toilet paper in all its single-use disposable glory! Even if it isn’t being sent to landfill, technically it’s waste as it’s going into the toilet, but reusable cloths are not happening in this house any time soon. Even if I was up for it (and I’m not), there is no way I’d convince my boyfriend!

I wonder if I had a compost bin whether I could/would compost my toilet paper?

We also received our first mail of the week – a letter with a label for changing the address on my boyfriend’s drivers license. In the past I’d recycle it, but now I’m going to feed it to the worms. What I’m wondering is what should happen to the cellophane window on the envelope?

post

There seems to be some debate about whether the windows break down in a worm farm. According to this discussion, some do, and some don’t. In the interest of Zero Waste Week I’m going to give it a go.

We invited our neighbour over for dinner on Wednesday, and of course I cooked. I made everything from scratch: dahl, aloo gobi, coconut rice (I’m stlll trying to perfect a DIY coconut milk recipe) and parathas. As I’ve said many times, I buy everything in bulk, but for some reason we had a bag of wholemeal flour, and I finished it off.

parathas
empty flour bag

(I must have had it for a while, because I notice it was technically out-of-date: ah well!) So what did I do with it? Shredded it up into strips, to make wormfarm bedding! These guys have to have somewhere to rest in between all this extra eating I’m making them do!

worm bedding

Whilst cooking, I had to send my boyfriend out for last minute ingredients. As well as the things I requested (he took some old bags to use) he also bought some milk, and some completely illegal and unrequested chocolate licorice managed to sneak its way in. Not waste, but definitely a waste of money! That white bag cost almost $4!

Wed Shopping

We try to buy our milk from Sunnydale, a local dairy that accept the glass bottles back for refilling. Sadly, they can’t take the lids back. Our local store used to stock this but has recently stopped. They sell a different brand of milk in glass which doesn’t operate a bottle-return policy. If it’s an emergency, we buy this one. Well, my boyfriend does. I make my own nut milk which is always plastic and waste-free!

Luckily, Sunnydale use the same glass bottles as the other dairy, so we sneakily take them back to Sunnydale for reusing. Unfortunately this other brand uses a nasty plastic sticker which we have to peel off in order to take the bottle back (Sunnydale request you keep their labels on). So once the milk is finished, we will be left with a plastic sticker and a metal lid.

I did think about asking our neighbour not to bring anything (because I was worried about the waste!) but in the end I decided not to…and he came to the door with a bottle of red wine! We rarely drink wine at home these days (Glen drinks the occasional beer and I have a really exciting waste-free beer story to share in my next post!) but it is nice to share a bottle with friends. Much better than bringing a box of individually wrapped additive-filled confectionery!

Friend for Dinner

I could have demanded he take the bottle home with him to help make my Zero Waste Challenge look more successful (I bet he would have thought that was weird – as neighbours we share the same bin system!) but I decided that would be cheating. So the wine bottle and lid is our first big waste item.

As the week rolls to an end we have another challenge coming up – we have a friend coming to stay on Friday for a few weeks. (We’ve got a spare room now so we might as well make the most of it!) Not that the friend will be challenging – the challenge will be sticking to the Zero Waste Week rule with an extra (jetlagged) person in the house!

But you know me, I like a challenge, and I’m feeling confident! Looking forward to the end of the week!

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?!

The best $199 ever spent?

One of the best lessons I’ve learned about living with less is to avoid looking at adverts. Tricky, yes, because they’re everywhere. I don’t have a television, and I don’t tend to read magazines or newspapers, so I don’t get exposed from these sources…

But I walk past billboards every day, buses and taxis drive past me with adverts emblazoned across them whenever I step out of the house.

I see them at shops, the cinema, in stairwells, on the back of public toilet doors. The internet is rife with them too, and I even get them delivered to my inbox hidden amongst other content.

Avoiding catalogues and brochures (both printed and electronic) is one way I avoid advertising exposure. These adverts are more dangerous – not only do they try to make you desire something, but they tell you the price and where to buy it too! If we do get any through our mailbox, they go straight in the recycling ( and I curse the fact I still haven’t got round to putting a “no advertising material accepted” sticker on the box).

If I don’t know what this season’s hot look or colour is, I don’t need to worry about whether or not I conform (which, no doubt, I don’t). It’s unlikely anyone else does either. Advertising works by making us feel inadequate; that’s what sells stuff. Let’s face it, these catalogues know how to get to our hearts, with their gorgeous models and flattering photography, and beautiful, clever and quirky products. It isn’t easy to just look and feel nothing. The mind starts to wander. Maybe my life would be better if I purchased a blue-and-white stripy themed dinner service. With the matching stripy napkins. So classic, and the nautical theme is just so…in! Hmmm.

Yesterday we had a whole heap of them stuffed through the door. (We really must get a “no junk mail” sticker.) I thrust them into the recycling. Then I noticed my boyfriend was reading one. I ask him what he’s looking at: it’s a sport’s catalogue. I frown. He has a bit of a penchant for purchasing bicycle accessories at the moment, so this could be dangerous. Then he hands it to me. “Here, check this out!”

I look at the picture, puzzled. “But it’s a box!”

“Yep”, he says. “And it costs $200!”

Plyobox small

How ridiculous. Really. A box made of plywood (or is the fact it’s called the Plyo Box a strange coincidence?) that costs $199. Do these fitness types really need such a box? Won’t the stairs do? Or a sturdy chair? Or a wall? For the man who has everything…everything, that is, except common sense?

I was thinking about this today when I was cutting up some crackers I’d made. I was using a knife, and I was thinking about pizza cutters, and how unnecessary they are – unless perhaps, you run a pizza shop. I used to have a pizza cutter, many years ago, and I used it on the few occasions that I ate pizza, until it broke. Then I had to cut my pizza with a knife.

I’m going to offer you some wisdom here, and I come from a place of experience – cutting your pizza with a knife does not affect your enjoyment of eating said pizza. A pizza cutter does not increase your happiness (but it will probably piss you off when it breaks). Profound, huh?! My knife, by the way, is still going.

That box and the pizza cutter aren’t actually so dissimilar, I realised, except one costs $199 and one costs $9. Both are completely unnecessary, yet price makes a huge difference to our perception: it’s a lot harder to justify spending $199 than to is to spend $9! What if we didn’t consider price at all – we only considered if something was necessary or unnecessary?

I wonder how many people who look at the Plyo box and laugh at its pointlessness are pretty sure they have a pizza cutter lurking at the back of their kitchen drawer? (I may not have a pizza cutter, but my kitchen drawer is no mimimalist’s dream, either. We have a cheese knife, I discovered the other day. That is possibly even less useful than a pizza cutter!)

Which brings me back to advertising. These ads are trying to sell us things we don’t own yet. We all have pizza cutters and cheese knives and other unnecessary items in our homes, but if we could just stop looking at adverts we wouldn’t keep buying more to add to them. How many times have you thought you needed something after seeing an advert? (Quick test: before seeing the advert, had you been lamenting that no-one had invented this item you now think you want? No? Then you don’t need it now.)

5 Ways to Keep the Ads at Bay

We can’t walk around all day with our eyes closed, but there’s a few things we can do to reduce our exposure to adverts:

  • Get a “no junk mail” sticker, and stop those ads reaching your mailbox. (Yes, point taken. It’s on the to-do list.)
  • Any catalogues, brochures and flyers that you do receive, throw straight in the recycling.
  • If you watch TV, try to avoid the ad breaks. If there’s too many, simply turn the sound off. It’s amazing how much less notice you take if you can’t hear them. Try it!
  • Do you subscribe to any magazines that you don’t really read? What about ones that are basically a big shopping advert? Can you cancel them? (Libraries stock magazines if you still want the occasional hit – and they take all the advertising material out!)
  • Unsubscribe from retailer newsletters, or anything else that tries to sell you stuff too frequently. You really won’t miss anything.

Next time you see an advert and feel yourself getting drawn in, just remember the Plyo box. Is it really going to be the best $199 you’ve ever spent?

Tell me what you think! Do you have any tips for avoiding advertising? Do you find it easy or are you swept up by the clever marketing tricks? Can you stick to only necessary purchases? Do you think I’ve got it wrong, and clearly the Plyo box is the best invention you’ve ever seen?! I’d love you to leave your thoughts in the comments!

The One Golden Rule of Decluttering

We’re moving home in just over a week, and there’s nothing like a house move to flex that decluttering muscle and have a clear-out. All that stuff piled away in the corners of our flat that we’ve probably forgotten about?

It’s one thing to let it sit there, not bothering us; but it’s quite another to have to drag it out, dust them off, pack it into boxes, lug them somewhere else, unpack them at the other end and then find somewhere new to stash it all until they’re forgotten about once more.

As a natural hoarder, one of the hardest things for me to do is to let go of things that might be useful in the future. Which basically means, stuff that I don’t need now. Or probably more accurately, stuff I don’t need.

I can get rid of things that aren’t useful at all and I know won’t be useful in the future. I try to avoid getting these types of things in the first place, but it happens.

I can also get rid of things that are useful, but that I have no use for – especially if I know someone else who will be able to use it, or I know that we could sell it (so there’s a financial sweetener to counter the pain of getting rid of it).

However, things that might be useful in the future translates as things that are broken and need repairing. Cables for some kind of electronic device but which one exactly I’m not sure. Stuff for hobbies that I don’t even do but think I might try in the future. Half-used toiletries or jars of strange ingredients that I don’t really like but know I paid money for and can’t bring myself to throw away.

When we move, I’m going to have to challenge my resistance to getting rid of things that might be useful in the future. We’ve lived in this flat for almost two and a half years. If something hasn’t been useful in all that time, and I still can’t actually envisage when it will start becoming useful, then it needs to go.

Sounds easy enough, but will I be able to follow through? To help strengthen my resolve, I’ve been thinking about what I tell myself in order to convince myself to hang onto these things. If I can counter these arguments in a logical way, maybe I’ll be able to let these things go.

Here are the three top excuses, and my counter-arguments:

But I feel so guilty!

Most of this stuff is stuff that no-one else will want. Broken bits and pieces, scrap, textbooks, centuries-old cosmetics, random condiments that I wouldn’t trust to eat, unused kitchen tools… and so on. Why then, do I feel so guilty about throwing it away?

One reason, maybe, is that I paid for some of this stuff. It cost me money. To throw it away is to admit that I made a bad purchase. I like to think of myself as good at managing money, but these items make me feel like I was reckless – a spendthrift! I feel guilty. The paradox is that every time I see these items, I am reminded of my bad purchase.

If I got rid of these things, I wouldn’t think about them again, and I’d actually be free of these emotions!

Another reason is that these things may have some functionality left, but I don’t want to use them any more. This is the case with toiletries that I have since discovered contain toxic ingredients, or plastic cookware, or foodstuffs that I don’t like. Yet to get rid of something that still has some life left seems wasteful, so they remain, just in case. Yet if I don’t want to use them (and I don’t want anyone else to use them, either), then actually they don’t have any life left. It’s an illusion.

The guilt I have, I’ve realised, is misplaced. When I got these items, and started using them, I didn’t know they were toxic/unsafe/unpleasant. If I had, I’d never have bought them, or never have used them. We make decisions based on what we know at the time. I can’t feel guilty about what I didn’t know.

I’m saving it from landfill

If it’s something that I’m genuinely going to use, then yes, I’ve saved it from landfill. If it’s something that just sits in my house, gathering dust, then I haven’t actually saved it from landfill at all. I’ve just delayed the process. It’s still as useless as it was, and it will end up in landfill eventually (if not by my hand, by someone else’s).

I’ve picked up things from the verge (old carpet, reticulation tubing) that I’ve thought would be useful once I have a garden. I don’t have a garden, and I won’t have a garden when I move, so I still don’t need these things.

Maybe in the future I will have a garden and need these things. But that’s a maybe. (Actually, I don’t know that old carpets are good to use in gardens anyway, because of the chemicals that leach out of them.)

This wasn’t my waste, it was someone else’s. It’s waste that I tried to save. I failed. But we all fail sometimes. That’s how life works.

What if I do need it later?

You know what? If it so happens that I suddenly need that item that I finally got rid of, I’ll check with friends and family to see if they have one I can have, or borrow. I’ll check in the classifieds and see if there’s one for sale second-hand. If not, maybe, just maybe, I’ll have to buy another one. If I really genuinely need it, then the new one I buy will be a useful purchase! I think the risks are pretty small, and I’m gonna take my chances.

 The Golden Rule of Decluttering

There’s a quote I see bandied round the internet a lot. A motto maybe, of minimalists everywhere. Words to live by or strive towards. When it comes to decluttering, I think it’s perfect.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” ~William Morris

What I have come to realise is that I cannot feel guilt for things I purchased in the past, or for decisions I made before I started on this journey. I cannot feel guilty because I don’t find something useful or can’t make it useful. Just as there is no space for junk, there is no room in the tiny flat for guilt, and there’s no room in the new place either.

As we pack up this flat to move, this quote is our mantra. If it isn’t useful or beautiful, then it’s not coming with us.

How about you? What do you find easy to get rid of, and what things do you struggle with? Do you have a motto or rules that you live by when it comes to decluttering? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

We’re leaving the tiny flat…

After a little over two years in our tiny flat, it’s time to say goodbye. We’ve signed the papers and handed in our notice, and in just over two weeks we’ll be moving out.

It was a tough decision. We really like our tiny flat, especially in the Australian summer. It doesn’t get any direct sunlight so it stays relatively cool, even when it’s above 40ºC outside (and in Perth in summer, that happens often). We like living in a small space, and it’s been an excellent teacher in living with less and making do with what we have.

Plus we like the area; as we don’t have a car we chose this spot as it had excellent public transport links, and lots of facilities within walking distance.

However, last winter was brutal. When you live in a flat that doesn’t get any direct sunlight, with gaps in the doorframes that cold air blows right through, huge panes of single glazed glass and a bathroom window that actually has a 3inch x 25inch gap with no glass at all, it gets pretty cold.

Australia might be hot in the summer, but temperatures can drop to 0ºC overnight in winter. Brrr. Not only that, but when you have a cold flat, it gets damp. Last winter our bedroom (and everything in it) went moldy. Whilst we cleaned it up successfully (with no nasty chemicals) and the mould hasn’t returned, I was quietly dreading the possibility of having to deal with it again this year.

There’s a couple of other things that are less than ideal. Our toilet/bathroom is en-suite, which makes it awkward when visitors come to stay. It’s too small to have more than a couple of extra people over at one time, and we’d like to have people round more often. It would be nice to have somewhere else to keep the bicycles rather than in the way in the bedroom, where I manage to fall over it at least once a fortnight.

We ummed and ahhed about it for a while (it’s such a lovely place to live in summer that it’s hard to remember the horrors of last winter, but I remember saying at the time there was no way I could face another winter in this flat). The flat is inexpensive for the area, and moving is another expense. We decided that if the landlord didn’t put the rent up, we’d stay for as long as we could stand, and then hopefully find somewhere else.

The landlord decided to put the rent up.

We wrote to him to ask whether they would hold off for three months, to give us time to adjust. The job I was working on finished at Easter, so losing an income source on top of a rent increase was not ideal.

They said no.

We resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to start looking, and then something perfect came up.

The flat next door!

In our block of 16 units, only four are one-bed units. The others are two-bedroom, and our neighbour’s flat is one of these. This means it is slightly bigger, and the bathroom is not en-suite. It also has a big front balcony area with some natural light which means we might be actually able to grow some plants at last! Also, it’s not technically next door but across the passageway with a different aspect and far more natural light. In the 8 years our neighbours lived there, it never went moldy. Plus, it’s the same price!

The downside? It’s not in such good condition as our current flat. Most of the features are original (read dated and falling apart). The kitchen is even less spacious than our current (and fairly tiny) kitchen.

We’re really excited to be moving, though…and yet glad to be staying where we are. The best of both worlds. There’s nothing like moving house for the chance to declutter, either – and we intend to move with far less than we currently have. All those things that we’ve been keeping in case they turned out to be useful? Well, if they haven’t been useful in two years, perhaps now is the time to let them go.

Two weeks tomorrow and counting…

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.

Plastic Shores: a Movie Review

Last Friday I saw the eco documentary Plastic Shores at the delightful Ecoburbia monthly movie night. The Producer/Director Edward Scott-Clarke describes the movie like this:

‘Plastic Shores’ is a documentary that explores how plastic affects the marine environment. Travelling from the International Marine Debris Conference in Hawai’i to the polluted Blue Flag beaches of Cornwall, the film reveals just how bad the problem of plastic debris is and how it harms aquatic life and, potentially, human health. 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced in the world every year and a third of this is for disposable packaging. There is now, according to the UN, not a single beach or sea in the world that is not affected by plastic pollution and the problem is only increasing.

Here’s the trailer:

Now you know me, I love a good eco documentary, especially one about plastic. I love Bag It!, and also The Clean Bin Project (not specifically about plastic but waste in general, and an excellent documentary), so I was looking forward to this.

I have to say, I found it somewhat disappointing. It opened with an interview, and the interviewee was extolling the virtues of plastic, and this wasn’t really countered by the film’s narrator. The interviewee actually made some good points, including that transporting plastic is lighter than glass (reducing fossil fuel use and emissions), and that if plastic was replaced with other materials, there would be far greater burden on the planet in terms of mining and cost.

I was expecting the movie to then counter these arguments, perhaps with a mention of the need to cut back on consumption in general, the fact that whilst plastic has some great uses, a lot of plastic is for single-use items, or that plastic is made from fossil fuels, maybe even that despite the benefits, the ultimate environmental cost outweighs all the advantages.

But there was no response at all. It seemed a strange way to introduce the movie, leaving viewers confused as to the message the film was trying to get across.

The content itself was informative, although a little slow moving. There were facts revealed that I didn’t know (apparently 5% of oil production is used for plastic manufacture), and the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans was very clearly explained. There was a lot of detail of how plastic has affected Hawai’i, and interviews with some knowledgeable and informed plastic activists.

What disappointed me most, though, was the solutions, presented after all the negative impacts of plastic on the oceans had been covered. I guess I was just expecting more.

‘Reduce’, was the first option; the solution? Take your own bags to the shops. I felt that most people who would take the time to watch this (any?) eco-documentary were probably past the whole ‘bring-your-own-bags’ scenario. This was discussed in great detail, including interviewing a man who ran a company making biodegradable bags… from fossil fuels. Hardly a win-win solution.

No other solutions were really discussed; the movie moved on to ‘Re-use’. There was a sweeping statement that all plastic is reusable, combined with camera shots of used syringes, empty crisp packets and condom wrappers. I would think that the issue with most single-use plastic is that, actually, it is not reusable. Surely that is the point?

Then we were back to the trusty ‘Recycle’. “We should recycle what we can”, the movie tells us. Again, most people taking the time to watch an eco documentary are probably already at this point.

I just felt that there was so much more to say. There was no discussion about the impact of convenience, of how convenience is a key generator of waste and a huge part of the plastic problem. There was no real discussion about reusable containers, cutlery, water bottles, refusing straws, avoiding single-wrapped items, yet there was so much potential.

I felt this was a missed opportunity.

The biggest let down, for me, was that this movie did not inspire. It educated, yes, but I didn’t leave feeling like I could make a difference, or armed with any new tips, or empowered to make changes. That’s exactly what I love about Bag It and the Clean Bin Project. They show what ordinary people can do (and are doing) to make a difference. For me, that is the key to a successful eco documentary. It should empower.

Oh, and there should be some light-hearted moments, some humour, some fun. It’s not all doom and gloom, and making people feel like it’s all too much does not inspire change.

If you’re a die-hard zero waste advocate, then watch it; you’ll probably still learn something new. If you’re not, I’d give it a miss. Bag It! and Clean Bin Project have a similar message but are uplifting, fun, and more enjoyable to watch.

Have you seen Plastic Shores? What did you think? Do you agree with me that a good eco documentary should be inspiring? Maybe you’re a fan of the ‘Doom and Gloom’ approach? I’d love to hear your thoughts!