I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.
Edward Everett Hale
I recently read a wonderful quotation by Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero- Waste Chef. She said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Well, thank goodness for the kind of common sense thinking and down to earth pragmatism that cuts through the guilt and frustration felt by so many people trying so hard to do their bit for the planet. Search ‘zero waste’ and you’ll find a wealth of different definitions. Whether it is described as a philosophy, an ideology, a movement, a way of life, an impossible dream or all of the above the bottom line is about ordinary people (and many extraordinary ones, too) trying to reduce and eliminate waste through adopting sustainable natural cycles. It’s a whole lot more than simply (or not!) reducing what goes into landfill; it’s about not wasting precious resources, clean water, fuel, journeys, time . . . it’s about doing what is best for our health, our bodies and minds, our environment, the Earth and all that shares it. It’s hard. Very hard, in fact. Trust me, zero waste is not for wimps.
The internet is a great tool and there are some fantastic zero waste / sustainable living sites out there written by inspiring people doing some amazing things and sharing their expertise and experiences with generosity and enthusiasm. The problem is – and this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – that social media, with its emphasis on pithy phrases, clever graphics and arty photos, so often gives the impression of lives lived perfectly (and that includes the zero waste movement) which can lead those of us who are distinctly flawed feeling a tad inadequate. However, it needn’t be that way, hence my appreciation of what Ms Bonneau has to say. Instead of trying desperately to achieve zero waste and failing, surely it is better to do a few things (or maybe only one thing?) at a time and do them to the best of our ability. It’s that old saying about eating an elephant: don’t become overwhelmed by trying to crack it all at once. There is beauty and reward in being one of the millions who do it imperfectly because collectively the achievement is astounding.
Leo Babauta of https://zenhabits.net/ often cites accountability as a useful tool in helping to form new habits and behaviours; if you have to report your progress to someone then the chances are you will stick to your resolution. This is why I think it’s important for me to write occasionally about the progress we are making in our attempt to live as simply and greenly as possible. It doesn’t matter if no-one reads my posts (although it’s always lovely to hear when people have!) but the discipline of sitting and gathering my thoughts and reflecting on where we are is in itself extremely helpful. For us, total zero waste – like total self-sufficiency – is not a viable target, but working bit by bit to a point as close as possible is an interesting, rewarding and thought-provoking process. Here, then, are the recent steps we have taken along this fascinating path . . .
Making soap is a relatively new activity for me and following the success of my first attempts I decided to try and create a hand soap that was slightly more complicated and interesting than my original basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soaps. It would be very easy to get sucked into the fascinating world of soap-making, there is so much creativity and possibility out there! However, I am adamant about not going down the route of synthetic colourants or fragrances, no matter how beautiful or tempting they may seem; it’s natural all the way for me.
Calendula has long been recognised for its healing qualities in skin care; it’s also one of my favourite flowers and we are lucky enough to be blessed with a year-round jungle of it here so picking a few flowers in the spring sunshine and setting the petals to dry was really no hardship. This is one of the few dried flowers that retains its vibrant colour in soap.
The second new ingredient I chose for this batch was saffron, also renowned for its beneficial skincare qualities. Much used in Spanish cooking, it is widely available and a fraction of the cost in the UK so didn’t seem too much of an indulgence. Mixed in powder form with my blend of olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and almond oil it also added natural colour so the cured soaps should be a soft yellow. Once the calendula petals had been added along with sweet orange essential oil, the batter looked and smelt good enough to eat!
The finished soaps are now curing on a baking rack, currently the sweet colour of primroses; I am turning them daily and watching with interest to see how (or if) they change in the coming weeks.
Sticking with soap and I have to say that my homemade solid shampoo bars have been something of a revelation. They lather beautifully in our soft spring water and double as a body wash in the shower so are a super-efficient idea. I was expecting some kind of ‘transition’ phase when we started to use them – even my very green and gentle shampoo of choice contains some of those dreaded oil-stripping surfactants – but there has been no problem whatsoever. Obviously, a soap-based shampoo has a higher pH so I use a leave-in final rinse of apple cider vinegar in warm water to balance that. Taking that idea one step further, the fresh new growth on our perennial herbs has provided the perfect ingredient for a herbal hair rinse which couldn’t be easier to make: lavender, sage and rosemary simmered gently in water for an hour, left to cool naturally then strained and stored in the fridge. For each hair wash, I simply decant a small amount, add the vinegar and warm water to take off the chill, then rinse through as many times as I can. The result? Soft, shiny hair that smells pleasantly and faintly herbal (not of vinegar at all!) and stays looking clean and bouncy for several days between washes. Even better, we no longer have bottles of shower gel, shampoo or conditioner in the shower; one bar each of soap and shampoo does the trick. All natural, no harsh chemicals, no packaging. So far, so good.
The next item to try on my list of homemade toiletries was deodorant. Now this is a bit of a tricky one, isn’t it? I have no desire to smell of the harsh synthetic scents that are so prevalent these days and given I spend most of my time pottering about our mountain patch, slapping on deodorant isn’t always necessary . . . but when I do venture into public, I wouldn’t want to offend other people with a pong, no matter how ‘natural!’ Having done a fair bit of research, I opted for a very simple recipe using melted coconut oil mixed with bicarbonate of soda, arrowroot (cornflour is an alternative) and lemon and sweet orange essential oils.
My biggest concern over this was the bicarb. When it comes to deodorising and cleaning everything from teeth to toilets, it’s an amazing substance but there is a danger of assuming that everything ‘natural’ is good and that’s not true. Let’s face it, snake venom is natural but I wouldn’t want it in my bloodstream. The problem with bicarbonate of soda is that it is a powerful alkali which may not necessarily make it a sensible thing to be applying to skin. I read and re-read every article I could find, mulling over the pros and cons; it seems that both extremes of the argument (use it for everything vs. don’t touch it with a barge pole) can be backed up by some pretty complex chemistry and strong emotional arguments. In the end, I decided a dose of pragmatism was called for. I don’t have sensitive skin so I was happy to give it a go, but jiggled the proportions of ingredients around to reduce the bicarb by half. The result, once the mixture had set, was a soft solid that will keep happily for several months in a jar. It is easy to use – just rub a pea-sized amount on with a finger and feels really lovely, far nicer than any other kind of deodorant I’ve used. The big question, of course, is does it work? Well, here is the bit I have to admit I doubted right from the start but yes, it works brilliantly. Considering I’ve been putting it through some fairly serious 10k runs and heavy gardening in warm weather, I am amazed at how it stands up. Wow! It goes without saying that I shall watch for any adverse reaction but in the meantime I’m a convert – and a sweet, citrus-scented one at that!
Moving swiftly from smells to snacks. We’re not naturally snackers as we find three square meals a day of good wholesome food keeps us going well, but occasionally – especially on days involving long or arduous runs – there is a need for a small top-up. Dried kiwi has proved a real success and definitely something I shall be making again next season. They may be a bit of an acquired taste but I love that first tangy sweet-sour whack of flavour like bitter sherbet; a few slices are enough for a fulfilling snack packed with fibre and potassium and they are great for carrying on a long walk. Although our walnut harvest was relatively poor last year, we still have several kilos in store and I love to spend a few minutes each week shelling enough to keep in the kitchen for cooking, sprinkling on breakfasts and grazing in those occasional between-meals tummy rumbling moments. Two healthy snacks, no food miles, zero packaging and totally free. How good is that?
Of course, it’s always great to try new things and as we both love cooking, new recipe ideas are always welcome. We’ve started experimenting with making our own runners’ energy bars, ones that are packed with energy and goodness but without the inevitable high sugar content, additives, preservatives and E-numbers (not to mention excessive packaging) so common in bought ones. In a way, this is a simple exercise in lining up all the different kinds of seeds we have in the cupboard, combining them with something gloopy and baking until crisp. So for our first attempt, a mix of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia seed together with milled linseed and dried goji berries, stuck together with honey, olive oil and a dash of soy sauce. The cooked bars were a bit crumblier than we’d hoped for but fantastically tasty and certainly the perfect post-run booster food. We need to keep playing about with recipes and experimenting with different ingredients; mmm, that will be tough, then!
I think an essential part of our approach to green living is to revisit different things regularly and look at ways in which we can improve them, nudging forward a bit at a time. Take dish washing, for example. We don’t have a dishwasher so everything is washed and dried by hand. During the months when The Beast is lit, we heat all our dish water on the hob; to save wasting water and fuel, we never fill a bowl just to wash a couple of things but let the dirty crockery mount up through the day for one big washing up event in the evening. (Sometimes, we just need to shift our perspective about things: this is not slobby behaviour, it’s green. ) When we are here on our own, we simply cold rinse the same two coffee mugs and re-use them throughout the day – and we haven’t died from doing that yet. Making my own washing-up liquid is something I want to try but for now we use eco-brands, preferably in refillable bottles. Our water is so soft that a 950ml bottle like the one below lasts us six months, even when it’s also used in homemade cleaning potions. For some time now I’ve been crocheting cotton dishcloths which last for ages and can be thrown through the laundry on a regular basis, then composted when they finally give up the ghost. So, what could we do better? Well, one thing I certainly wanted to remove from our lives was scourers made of that nasty scrubby plasticky stuff but how to replace them with something effective? I’ve tried making various knitted scrubbies but nothing seemed to work so in the end the decision was to invest in a couple of wooden brushes which, fingers crossed, should last us for years. That’s another little box ticked.
I’ve been making and using my own washing powder very happily for some months now but now I find there is a bit of a fly in the ointment. I’ve read several articles recently urging people not to do this on any account (it’s a bit like the whole bicarb argument – this green living / zero waste business is tricky stuff sometimes.) The argument is based on the fact that modern washing machines and modern textile fibres are all designed to be used with detergents. Soap-based cleaners can cause a build-up of scum which could ultimately wreck a machine and obviously, having to replace a perfectly serviceable machine before necessary is not remotely green. Also, soap doesn’t clean laundry properly and to prove the point, there are any amount of horror photos of dirty water left behind after so-called clean laundry has been ‘stripped out’ with powerful mineral cleaners. Okay, time for some balanced thinking once again. For every writer standing against homemade laundry powder, there are plenty claiming to have used it for many years without a single machine issue; there are also plenty of people who have stripped out detergent-washed laundry and been left with grotty water, too. As washing soda is the key ingredient of homemade laundry powder, I have increased the proportion in my recipe and reduced the soap; I always fill the fabric conditioner dispenser with white vinegar which it’s claimed helps to stop the scum and as an extra precaution, I am using an eco-detergent every few washes. Not perfect, but I’m hoping it’s a sensible compromise.
One of the best things I’ve discovered recently is organic bamboo kitchen roll. We don’t use paper kitchen roll often and certainly never for mopping up spillages (a cloth does the job just fine) but there are certain cooking processes and some of my messier pastimes where it’s useful stuff to have around – and it is at least compostable. The bamboo roll, however, takes things to a new level: simply tear off a square, use it for whatever . . . then wash it and use it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, each square can go through the laundry as many as 80 times, can be bleached, too, if necessary and eventually finishes up on the compost heap like paper. After the first wash, the fabric becomes very soft and almost fluffy; it’s delightful stuff and I’ve already found far more uses for it than imagined. (The bowl of soap batter above is sitting on a bamboo square.) Our roll of 20 sheets will last us many, many years. What an inspired idea.
Staying with bamboo, I have also recently bought bamboo toothbrushes to try. They are one of those things that seem to attract Marmitesque reviews (love or loathe) so I’m interested to see how we get on with them. I love the fact they have their own leaf pattern for easy identification and I can already see a further life for them as row markers in the garden once their dental duties are done. Now I do love an idea like that!
One of our biggest resolutions on the path to zero waste is to use the materials and resources we already have as much as possible rather than buying new. In this vein, Roger has been demolishing an ugly and tumbledown brick wall and replacing it with a gate he has made from wood left over from the house renovation. Not only has it made access to the field so much simpler (what, no more scrambling over a wall?) but it looks far smarter, has opened up the view from the garden and put some spare materials to very good use.
I have used up my final scraps of curtain lining fabric to make another batch of food storage bags – how did we ever live without them, they are such useful things? I also turned the last two patchworking fat squares in my box of bits into a wash bag to take when we’re travelling. The rather nasty plastic lining of our last one crumbled into pieces many years ago and since then we’ve been using random scruffy plastic bags stuffed into a suitcase. The bag was made in minutes, finished with a scrap of satin ribbon as a drawstring and then sprayed with waterproofer; I’m hopeful it will last us for many years and it’s certainly an improvement on our current system!
Having resolved not to buy any new yarn, I’m enjoying planning my woolly activities around what I already have, whether commercially-produced yarns or fleece to spin myself. Spinning, dyeing and knitting from scratch takes a long time but there is such pleasure and satisfaction in working through the whole process, especially if I have someone else in mind for the finished article. A skein of Blue-Faced Leicester wool spun with kid mohair and dyed with ready-mixed colours left over from the last project brought to mind a cottage garden of delphiniums and clematis, granny’s bonnets and roses . . . perfect for the summer birthday gift had I planned. I’m not a fan of circular needles and my lace knitting is painfully slow but that’s all part of the process . . . there is no rush, just the simple delight of creating something unique from scratch for someone I love.
I’m also working my way slowly through the scraps of yarn left over from various blanket projects and the pile of little crocheted squares is mounting up steadily. I still have no real final plan – there will certainly be enough for a blanket – but it’s good to see those little bits and pieces being put to good use.
So, on we go, taking small footsteps along this tricky path. We still have such a long way to travel and I know it won’t all be easy; the next few ideas to try are already in the pipeline and the coming weeks will see how well they pan out. It’s easy to feel despondent sometimes, despair even, especially looking at the wider world and the problems too mighty for us to tackle alone. However, taking a walk through the woods down to the river yesterday, I paused to enjoy the moment: the trees hazed with fresh new spring growth, clouds of butterflies playing chase in the sunshine, the first swallows wheeling and chattering overhead, the raucous birdsong echoing, it seemed, from every branch.
Yes, this is why we do it, this is what it’s for . . . the hope that in small green footsteps we reduce our giant footprint and leave a beautiful and sustainable world for our precious grandchildren. Surely that’s a future worth fighting for, however imperfectly?