Trying to be Greener

Tried and tested ways of being more environmentally friendly.

Over the past 12 months I have used the extra time and challenges that lockdowns have provided to further explore my own impact on the environment and try out different ways to reduce my family’s environmental impact. Here I will share with you the good and bad, the extra personal benefits, the mistakes and the, “I wish I had always done this”!

Which issue to address?

The most difficult place to start is deciding which environmental issue you want to address. My example for this is actually a decision I made over three years ago – disposable or reusable nappies. The environmental impact of disposable nappies is large as they take a lot of space in landfill and are incredibly slow to degrade, their manufacture has high chemical inputs and there is the impact of their distribution, and of course single use plastic issues. But reusable cloth nappies are not without fault. Made to last, they do use high quality materials but many brands rely on plastics for the waterproof properties. Increased laundering not only uses electricity and a lot of water but also detergents have an impact and there is also drying to consider.

As our ancient washing machine died at the time we were making this decision we were able to replace it with a A++ energy rated machine that also uses minimal water (which we have discovered is not useful for washing nappies and so frequently they need an extra rinse!) but we felt it was one obstacle overcome, the second was the fact that we were already with a green energy supplier and users of eco detergents. We then researched materials that nappies were made from and were able to find a brand that was made from bamboo and recycled plastic. Drying has been a major issue for us as we would not consider a tumble dryer due to high energy use and so opted for outdoor and radiator drying and rapidly discovered that we needed more nappies than first thought as they took a long time to dry. Sadly we did have to dip into the emergency disposable supply more than we would have liked, to the point that we decided it would be better to buy more reusable nappies.

Another pitfall we fell into was disposable liners as we soon discovered that many readily available brands contained plastics and so the landfill and single use plastic issue was still there. I did try a very expensive organic plastic free brand but realised that they were just like kitchen roll! Therefore used kitchen roll for a while with success but when the first lockdown hit we could not get hold of it. After much googling I discovered fleece liners were a thing and so rather than buying new, I cut up an old blanket. These get washed with the nappies and work brilliantly and so I now feel incredibly guilty about all of those disposable liners I sent to landfill (flushing blocks the sewers). I have now made it to the other side of potty training and overall I do feel we made the right choice because at the end of the day the amount of plastic and landfill space we have saved has been incredible. This hit home when we went on our first family holiday – we had to use disposables due to no washing machine where we stayed and in just one week we produced two black bin liners of just nappy waste! At home we often only put out half a bag a week!

You may be wondering what will happen to all these nappies; they do have another baby to go through and then I have a large collection of items that will not degrade in my children’s lifetimes and so I will either gift them to someone else as an act of eco-evangelism or I have found a charity that will send them to families in developing countries to use. The bottom line is that everything we do has an impact on the environment; it is a case of deciding which impact you want to address and trying to think of ways of doing things that will have the least impact.

Cloth Nappies Jo Hands
Grow your own

We have always exuded the virtues of gardening for the benefit of nature as your garden can provide a vital heaven for wildlife as well as the positive impacts it can have on your own physical and mental wellbeing. See the feature cards below for lots of wildlife gardening tips. But there is also an extra eco-side to growing your own! The first factor that comes to mind is practically zero food miles, then the fact that all plants absorb carbon dioxide so the more plants there are, the more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere but you can also control your plot and choose to avoid weed killers, pesticides and slug pellets.

Now, there is nothing more disheartening than putting in months of effort for your hard-earned crops to be ruined by pests, but do not reach for the chemicals. For years I have been experimenting with companion planting to deter unwanted pests from vulnerable crops, this is what I found worked. The onion family has a strong scent and so it will overpower the scent of other more vulnerable crops so pests are not attracted, most notable is the ability to deter carrot fly. Basil attracts aphids, so plant it well away from crops that you want to protect; I found it very effective for protecting my tomatoes and the aphids did leave some basil to enjoy with them! Borage is brilliant for attracting pollinating insects into your garden to give your crops a boost but borage also repels tomato worm. The leaves and flowers are edible and with their cucumber flavour make a great addition to a salad but also give a summery garnish to a gin and tonic. Nasturtiums are another edible flower, they bring a lovely pepperiness to a salad but they also attract cabbage white butterflies away from brassicas and lettuces, just make sure they are grown well away from the plants you are trying to protect (I learnt that lesson the hard way)!

Another distraction flower for the cabbage white butterfly is marigolds. Marigolds also attract adult hover fly, their larvae can eat up to 50 aphids a day! Nettles will also attract aphids and cabbage white butterflies away from legumes and brassicas. I am a huge fan of nettle soup; just fry some diced onion and garlic, add stock and a diced potato, simmer for a few minutes before adding young nettle leaves and simmer until the potatoes is cooked, season with salt and pepper. I would recommend liquidising but don’t worry, cooking will deactivate the sting! Having talked about deterring pests, there are some insects to encourage into your garden. An adult ladybird can consume 5,000 aphids in its life as well as feeding on thrips, mealy bugs and many different mites and fungal spores. Lacewings feed on aphids and mites and both of these useful insects can be attracted in with purple and yellow flowers. Many a pleasant picnic have been ruined by wasps but solitary wasps feed their young on aphids, flies and caterpillars so think twice before you deter them.

Grab your wooden spoon

Many people turned to baking as a pastime in the first lockdown but there is a legitimate eco reason to grab your wooden spoon! The majority of commercially made treats are overly packaged to give them the maximum shelf life which in turn helps to reduce food waste but often means an excessive use of single use plastic. Cakes slices are frequently in a plastic tray wrapped in cellophane, in a box and then wrapped in cellophane again. Yet to make a cake, eggs come in a cardboard box, flour and sugar in paper bags – all of which can go in your compost. Opting for solid butter rather than margarine in a plastic tub and you have created your cake without plastic, or if you can only get your chosen fat in a plastic tub, wash it and use it to store and transport your treats to give the plastic as much use as possible. Reusing is always preferable to recycling as although recycling will give longevity to the initial raw product ingredients, recycling does use a lot of energy. This point brings me on to a product that I have been using for over 10 years! Instead of using baking parchment, foil or greaseproof paper I use reusable, non-stick baking liners. I have been using the same set of liners for lining cake tins, baking trays and roasting pans for over 10 years and they are still going strong. They were not cheap to initially buy but they have proved to be incredibly durable and saved a tremendous amount of waste.

Cake Jo Hands
No need to smell

Our toiletries are a major source of single use plastic but the ingredients can also have terrible impacts. Many people have been making the switch to traditional soap bars over gel hand washes to reduce single use plastics but, be mindful of the wrapping and the ingredients as many contain palm oil which is linked to the destruction of the rainforests, and sadly there are still some companies that use testing on animals. I have had a love hate relationship with solid shampoo for over a decade. I always liked the plastic free factor, they were my go to when backpacking to save space and avoid potential leaks and that it is long lasting but I would struggle to get to the high street to purchase them and I always felt I wasted a lot as I would end up with unusable gloopy sludge before the bar was done.

A simple remedy for the sludge, was to start using a soap rack for storage so that it could fully dry out. Solid shampoo is thankfully now very fashionable and there are many suppliers online, on the high street and even supermarkets. For a long time they have been the realm of producers with very high values and / or artisan producers but as the popularity is increasing many major companies are also joining in, I am yet to decide if it is good or not. It would be good if their input made it normal for all soaps to be solid and plastic free but I fear that they will not have the high values of smaller producers and will possibly turn to plastics for packaging. Also the many artisan producers may not be able to compete. During lockdown I did turn to an artisan producer but I struggled to find a shampoo that suited my hair type, bad cases of squeaky hair and dandruff almost sent me back to bottles again but out of curiosity I used the shampoo bar I had purchased for my husband and my hair loved it so do try several different options before giving up! Another silver lining I discovered is that I did not need to use conditioner with this shampoo, despite having very long hair, this results in quicker showers and less water being used. I also made the move to using bars of soap instead of shower gel and this is certainly a move I wish I had made years ago!

Soap bars Jo Hands

I think my craziest but most rewarding lockdown move was to start making my own deodorant. I have very sensitive skin and struggled to get hold of my ‘safe’ brands so with no risk of causing offence (thanks to social distancing) I started to experiment. The recipe inspiration came from this website and I had all of the ingredients in the cupboard!

With a bit of research and several batches I have settled on this recipe:

  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tbsp arrowroot (or cornflour if you do not have sensitive skin)
  • 5 drops of tea tree oil
  • 5 drops of a lavender and camomile essential oil blend

Mix all the ingredients together and decant into a clean reused jar or tin. I find it best to melt the coconut oil slightly to make mixing easier. To apply, warm a pea sized amount between your fingers and rub into each armpit. This amount is enough for my husband and I for around two months. I did try to reuse deodorant cream stick containers but I found that the mixture did not hold together enough and would just crumble, it really benefits from being warmed in the fingers for best application. Warning: do not be tempted to add more essential oils to get more fragrance or effect; essential oils are potent and can burn the skin. I did find that the cornflour based mix was not suitable for use after shaving and actually had to wait a few days before I could use it without irritation. Since switching to arrowroot I have not had any irritation, even when using after shaving. I am still pleasantly surprised at how effective this deodorant is both in terms of deodorising and antiperspirant properties, I have found it more effect than many leading brands and it cuts plastic and avoids the chemical ingredients of which there are growing evidence to suggest that we should not use for the benefit of our own health.

So why does it work without the long list of chemicals you see on the label of a commercial deodorant? Coconut oil has antibacterial properties and so provides natural odour protection as body odour is produced by bacteria on the skin breaking down the acids in our sweat. Bicarbonate of soda raises the pH of the thin slightly acid layer of sweat and sebum on the skin which inhibits the growth of the odour forming bacteria. The cornflour or arrowroot absorbs moisture. The essential oils are primarily there for fragrance but I opted for those with antibacterial properties to gain maximum impact (they were also what I had in my cupboard!). Lavender brings a nice fragrance and is antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and relaxing. Camomile is soothing and well known for easing eczema, nappy rash and sores. The reason I have this oil in my cupboard is because I use it to soak small flannels, to make my own reusable wet wipes. Tea tree oil is also antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal and gives the fragrance freshness. Tea tree oil is something I have in my first aid cupboard for wound healing, insect repellent and treating acne.

Homemade Deodorant Jo Hands
Shopping

As we live in a village it is several miles to our nearest supermarket, which as working people is the easiest way for us to shop. I would always do our shopping on my way home from work to reduce car journeys and save time. Yet this stopped and so it became an additional journey of a 15 mile round trip to our nearest supermarket, to mitigate this we carefully planned our meals and utilized our freezer so that we only had to shop fortnightly to reduce our trips or we did a fortnightly online shop (fortnightly also meant slots being available for other people). There is great debate as to whether all forms of online shopping is good or bad as it adds so many delivery vans to the roads, but if it saves you a journey and when they are also delivering to other people it makes their journeys more worthwhile and supermarkets act on this buy letting you know what delivery slots already have vans in your area when booking a slot so you can in effect choose a greener slot. You can also help by choosing a wider slot time so that they can plan efficient routes.

Many supermarkets are reducing their plastics by bringing back loose fruit and veg and selling reusable bags, but it is important to remember that any clean bag or container will do, you do not need to buy new. Many supermarkets are also now selling ‘wonky’ items in an effort to reduce food waste; we managed to go a step further in this aspect. To help keep to fortnightly shopping we decided to look for a fruit and veg subscription and after a bit of research found a local wonky veg company. All of the produce is ‘rescued’ from disposal as it is items that have been rejected from the supply chain. The company we use also have set delivery days for areas so that their routes are as efficient as possible, they operate with minimal plastics and they donate a large percentage of stock to local foodbanks so it feels like a win-win situation. My issue however is the fact that I am always pleasantly surprised at the high quality produce we receive, I am yet to receive something that is truly wonky in my opinion which, makes me even angrier at the fussiness of the supply chain but glad that I am taking action against this.

Wonky Veg Jo Hands
Staying local

This has certainly been the theme for the last 12 months! As a family we have not only saved a lot of money by reducing our travelling but our impact on the environment has also been significantly reduced and we have expanded our repertoire of walks from our front door – saving time and fuel when going for a walk. When it comes to using the car less there is the instant lower costs associated with buying less fuel but also if you reduce your mileage you can reduce your insurance premium and you will not need to replace tyres as frequently. We instantly think of carbon emissions when we think of car use but tyre manufacture and disposable also has major environmental implications. Local shopping and manufacture is also vital, along with eating British and seasonal produce to reduce food and product miles.

Find your nearest Nature Reserve

Reduce, reuse, recycle

This mantra should be used in this order! The vast majority of western society consumes far too much leading to a host of impacts to our delicate planet. If everyone consumes slightly less, we can all feel the benefits. Such as; putting on an extra layer and turning the heating down, avoiding impulse buys and only buying things that we need rather than want, upgrading mobile phones less frequently, organising ‘secret Santa’ systems with friends and family to reduce gifting for the sake of gifting or opting for charity donation gifts or doing and experiencing rather than a tangible object that will ultimately end in landfill.

Sadly, the pandemic has reduced the growing reuse ethos. Takeaway outlets have stopped the filling of reusable coffee cups, sadly one café I visited in the summer had switched entirely to disposables, charity shops have been closed so unable to take donation or be a source of products, second hand sales have been suspended and there is growing concern about the litter being created by disposable masks. I automatically opted for reusable masks but sadly when attending essential medical appointments I have been requested to change to a provided single use mask. In this situation I then followed the guidelines and used this mask for the rest of the day to give it maximum use and cut the ear loops before disposing of it responsibly in a lidded bin so that it did not become an entanglement risk to wildlife. It is important to remember that these steps are for everyone’s safety at the moment, hopefully we will soon see the risks reducing and so it is vital that we get back into our reuse habits and encourage those around us to do the same. But please remember to actually use up any disposable items to the maximum use before responsible disposal as there is a danger of unintentionally creating more waste by switching to reusable items. There is also nothing wrong with continuing to reuse at home within your household. We have opted for using and washing rags in place of kitchen roll, sponges and cleaning cloths. With non-essential retail closed mending has been the way forward. I have sacrificed the most rag-worthy items of clothing to give others a new lease of life such as jeans being patched and a ripped duvet cover being patched with a remnant from a see-through sheet.

Recycling is fabulous and has never been easier with extensive curb side recycling schemes and charity fundraising recycling schemes but it is important to remember that recycling does use energy and so it should be the penultimate option, the very last resort being landfill.

Every little helps

The most important thing to remember is that any positive change is good. You do not have to do ‘everything’ all of the time and it does not have to be perfect all the time. You are much better to try a few simple, manageable things and do the best you can, when you can to prevent an all or nothing situation. The more people that act also makes a huge difference, we will all benefit more from everyone doing a little and so if you only try one thing from these suggestions, well done and please, spread the word.