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Why I’m not getting gifts this Christmas

A few days ago, Mr Namasi and I sent this message to our sons:

Dad and I don’t want you to buy gifts for us, please. It will be our great pleasure to have you home for Christmas and to be able to feed and spoil you for that time time. That will be enough for us. We’re not even buying each other gifts this year, choosing instead to do some nice things together.

They have enough expenses. Now that our sons have left the nest, seeing them is beyond any of the gifts their limited budgets could stretch to. One of our sons became a student this academic year, at the age of 25. The other recently had a car accident in which his little car was totalled. That’s one part of it.

Another part is the stuff. We moved twice in a year. The first time, we shed possessions as part of the normal moving process. Then we promptly became the repository of masses of furniture as first one and then the other son moved in with us temporarily, bringing all their furniture, and then moved out into furnished places, leaving their possessions behind. The second time we moved house, we downsized significantly and shed yet more stuff. We still have more than we have space for, even after a fairly successful yard sale in the summer, and an ongoing relationship with Facebook Marketplace, local ‘for sale’ sites, Freecycle and the like.

We have reached the stage in our lives when it’s hard to choose gifts for us. Particularly if you’re on a tight budget. I mean, I’d love to attend one of Emma Mitchell’s (aka Silver Pebble) workshops, but they come with a price tag beyond the reach of pretty much everyone buying gifts for me. So the fallback tends to be gimmick gifts which raise a laugh when they are opened, and add to the general merriment of the occasion. What’s lovely about these is that they show how well a person knows you. What’s less lovely is that they tend to end up in landfill once you get past the guilt of throwing away something given to you as a gift.

Yet another part is the wrapping. Around this time of year, we begin to see articles about the environmental impact of Christmas wrapping. We are reminded to do the scrunch test, to see whether wrapping paper is recyclable.

But that doesn’t really help with the packaging the gifts come in: the boxes and plastic and tissue paper and and and.

So many aspects of Christmas can be… is unseemly the word I’m looking for? The shops become a deeply stressful place to be. The foods that no-one enjoys are served up because it’s traditional. People spend money they can ill afford on gifts for people they scarcely know. Vast quantities of alcohol are consumed to alleviate the stress of the whole business. Masses of packaging is included in the next few kerbside garbage collections.

And it needn’t be like that. Why not leave out the food no-one likes, and replace it with something you do like? Make it part of your family’s unique Christmas tapestry. Support independent shops or local makers, artisans and crafters when choosing your gifts. Explore alternative ways of wrapping gifts that don’t have a massive environmental impact.

Consider intangible gifts: indoor skydiving, a spa treatment, a tank driving experience, membership of English Heritage/National Trust.

So many posts have been written on this subject, I feel as I would just be reinventing the wheel to go on. So I’ll steer you towards this post which contains several workable suggestions.

And I’ll end with this little reminder:

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Litter picking part deux

33 bags of litter

I recently posted about a litter pick on one of the roads leading to our village. The response to that was good enough for us to take another run at it. Since the second event differed fairly significantly from the first, I thought I’d write about it, in case it should prove useful to anyone considering organising a local litter pick themselves.

Last time, the local contractor provided us with a box of grabbers, gloves enough for everyone, litter bags and hi vis waistcoats. I assumed that this would be the case for round two as well. It wasn’t.

When we arrived to collect the kit, nothing had been set aside for us. In spite of an exchange of emails confirming everything, no record had been made anywhere that we were coming. Fortunately, because we were a small group, they were able to rustle up enough grabbers for us, and we were given more than enough bags. But that was it. No gloves and no hi vis. The gloves weren’t the end of the world: most people have gardening gloves. But the lack of hi vis was a distinct worry. The road we were working has no pavements. In fact, on one side of the road, there isn’t really even a verge to speak of. Since there is also a blind bend, there was no question of sending people out there without making them as visible as possible to oncoming traffic.

I posted a few frantic messages in various social media spaces and was able to beg and borrow enough hi vis waistcoats to go round.

In March, the spring foliage was only just starting to come in, and the litter was much more visible and accessible. This time around, the foliage was much denser, making it more difficult both to see and to retrieve the litter. You would think that that would mean we collected less, wouldn’t you? Not so.

Last time, we had a team of about six people, and we collected 15 refuse bags of litter in two hours, over a distance of less than half a mile. This time, we had a team of 10, and we collected 33 bags of litter in two hours within the same sort of distance.

We found fewer unusual items on this outing, but the prize probably goes to the heavy tractor tyre, filled with sludge, which had to be dragged up out of a deep ditch. There was also a pile of about 8 black bin bags filled with builders’ rubble – dumped about 100m further along in the same ditch – which we were unable to retrieve. We’ve reported both the tyre and the builders’ rubble to the local contractor, and we hope that they will be collected soon.

Last time, the day was cool and overcast. This time, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the mercury was cheerfully high. So hats, sun screen and a water supply were definitely needed.

The most common items retrieved were plastic bottles, drink cans, food wrappers and glass bottles.

Lessons learned, hints and tips

  1. Place your booking for the litter picking kit with your local provider. Find out if there’s a formal process you can go through to make sure that you don’t fall between the cracks.
  2. Order enough kit for everyone. Even those who tell you they have their own grabbers. They probably have one of those doohickeys designed for picking up things about the house. They really aren’t strong enough to drag a recalcitrant, half-buried soda can from the undergrowth.
  3. Make sure you know what you’re getting from the contractor. If gloves and hi vis gear aren’t included, ask around: many people have their own and may be willing to lend theirs to you. Don’t shrug off the hi vis gear. It’s absolutely vital that your team is as visible as possible – especially on country lanes with no pavements.
  4. If you’re working country lanes, it’s better to work during the months when the foliage is sparse. The litter is more visible and easier to retrieve. Also, you’re less likely to disturb the home of a small animal which might have young. In the warmer months, when the plant growth is more dense, it’s perhaps better to stick to working residential roads and public spaces.
  5. It’s best if your team works in pairs or small groups, especially if you’re working country lanes. Two people are more visible to passing traffic than one. And if one person gets hurt or stuck, it’s good to have someone on hand to help out. Also, if you find larger items (like tractor tyres or TV sets), it might take more than one person to retrieve it.
  6. Have your team tie their filled bags off and leave them by the side of the road, then collect them all up at the end. If people have to drag filled bags to a central point as they fill them, it means they have less time to actually pick up the litter. It’s also more exhausting. It follows from this that the litter pickers should carry enough spare bags with them that they don’t need to come back for more each time they fill one.
  7. Advise people to wear hats, sunglasses or protective eyewear, and sunscreen. Of course, if they choose not to, that’s their prerogative. But it doesn’t hurt to take along some sun screen for people to use, just in case. When it comes to hi vis, though, I would put my foot down if you’re working country lanes: if you’re not prepared to wear it, I’m not prepared to let you take part.
  8. Provide water – and put someone in charge of distributing it up and down the line of workers.
  9. Take along some kind of cream to treat nettle stings. I didn’t do this, and I wish I had.
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Great British Spring Clean

You’ve heard me complain about it before: over the course of the last few years, the roadside litter situation in Northamptonshire (and beyond) has significantly worsened. The plant growth along the A45 in recent months has been festooned with so much plastic that it takes my breath away. It’s particularly noticeable during the winter months, when there is no foliage to conceal it. Fly tipping is also on the increase, and in addition to the sort of litter that is thrown from the windows of passing cars, our roadsides have become dumping grounds for electrical appliances, sofas, tyres and all manner of other detritus of human existence. The ridiculous part of this is that I live within an easy drive of four drive-in recycling centres, all of which are closed two days a week, but those closures are staggered, so that there is always at least one of them open on any given day. This is one of my hot button topics.

Waiting for someone to do something, and whinging because no-one was doing anything didn’t seem to be working as an approach. So I decided that – being someone myself, as luck would have it – I would do something about it.

I live in the sweetest little village and, while the village itself is relatively clean and attractive, the roads leading to it are not. The subject of the state of the roads surrounding the village comes up fairly regularly on the community FB page. I was a little nervous, because we’re comparatively new to the village, and sometimes people can be resentful when Johnny-come-lately types start sticking their oar in. But the initial reaction was positive, so I decided to go ahead.

I contacted the local council, and learned about the nationwide Great British Spring Clean. I don’t know where the initiative was publicised, but I hadn’t known anything about it until that point. I had to get a bit of a wiggle on to schedule our local village litter pick within the time scale, but we managed it. Norse, which manages our local refuse and recycling, was very supportive and helpful. They provided me with gloves, bags, grabbers and hi-viz vests for all the volunteers. They also supplied guidelines and suggestions.

On Saturday morning, armed with grabbers, sporting our natty hi-viz vests and wearing protective gloves, we headed off to tackle one of the roads leading to and from our village. The group size vacillated between five and six people as some left and others joined, depending on their availability. As we worked, several passersby thanked us for our efforts, and asked to be included next time. The subsequent reaction on social media spaces has been positive enough to warrant a repeat.

Fly tipping

Some of the items we collected had clearly been there for some years, if the prices printed on the beer cans were anything to go by. Do you remember when beer cost 65p a can? Many cans and bottles so hidden by the plant growth, that we only became aware of them when we stepped on them and heard the tell-tale sound of plastic or metal crunching underfoot. The thing I was most concerned about was plastic wrappers and packaging – the sort of stuff that can throttle an animal. There was plenty of that.

We allocated two hours to the task, during which time we collected 15 bags of litter. We also encountered a pile of garbage that had clearly been fly tipped, and which included many items too large to fit into our bags. This pile we moved to the roadside where it could be seen and collected by the team due to pick up the bags.

Among the more unusual items we found were:

  • a pair of handcuffs, in their pouch – consensus was that they were the real deal, rather than the kinky bedroom games sort, what do you think? See picture.

    Handcuffs – real or kinky?
  • a washing up bowl – perfectly intact
  • Best Dad in the World coffee mug – also perfectly intact. Do you think Dad was demoted?
No longer the best Dad?
  • three chisels (not all in the same place)
  • a toaster
  • a television set (excuse the blurry photo)
TV set

We finished up at 12:30 and adjourned to the local WMC for a pint together. The mood was very positive, and people were keen to do it again.

I highly recommend it. If you’re hesitating for some reason – perhaps (like me) you think that someone else would be a better candidate – take a deep breath and make the call to your local council.

And yes, I get it – you pay your taxes and the local authorities are supposed to use that money to do this stuff. And perhaps the reasons it hasn’t been done are valid, and perhaps they aren’t. The fact remains that until something is done about it, you have to live with the litter. Waiting for ‘someone’ to do ‘something’ doesn’t seem to be a viable approach. And, if nothing else, this is a great way to connect with the local community.

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Re-using that plastic: bottle caps

Let me start this post with a reminder that the overall idea is to reduce the amount of plastic we use. That will inevitably reduce the amount of plastic waste we generate. The ideal is a zero plastic lifestyle.

It surprises me that I actually have to point this out, but reaction to previous posts in the series makes it clear that I do: none of the ideas shared in this series about reusing plastic are meant to encourage readers to go out and buy products in order to get their hands on the plastic items needed. Quite the contrary. If you decide you’d like to build a greenhouse out of 2 litre pop bottles, I can almost guarantee that you won’t need to buy a single bottle of pop yourself. Put a call out on your local Facebook group. Send an email out to your friends and family. Go door to door down your street, and chances are you’ll have enough bottles to build a double storey house… although I wouldn’t recommend it.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to the intended subject of this post: the reuse of plastic bottle caps. This is the last in this series. From next week, I’ll be looking at something other than plastic for a while.

The real bummer with plastic caps is that they are less widely recycled than the bottles they seal. Please check to see whether your local recycling service recycles PP (pop bottle caps) and HDPE (sometimes used for milk/fruit juice). If they don’t, you’ll need to separate them out from your trash. If you sling a bottle-with-cap into the recycling in an area where the caps are not recycled, there is a good chance that this will be seen as ‘mixed plastic’ and will be removed. At that point, landfill is a very real possibility.  If your local recycling centre doesn’t recycle this kind of plastic, there are some charities that do. Do a quick Internet search to see if there are any such services in your area.

So, what are we going to do with the little blighters?

Bottle top floor tiles

Some of the projects I shared in my post about reusing pop bottles, include the lids, so I won’t repeat those. But do have a quick (re)read to see whether there’s anything there for you. Other ideas include:

I have also seen ideas for Christmas decorations, and even jewellery. And, if you’re anything like me, each new thing you see will foster ideas of your own. What I love about this era is how much people are willing to share their skills and ideas. There’s a generosity among creative people that warms the cockles of my heart.

Until next time.

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Reusing that plastic: fizzy drink bottles

Fortunately, the plastic used to make fizzy drinks bottles (PET) is widely recycled. But we are trying to reduce our output, so this post will focus on alternative uses for them. And they are legion!

Sadly, bottle caps (PP) are less widely recycled. Many of the projects shared here include the caps, and I will look at some separate uses for them in a separate post.

Lighting

In places without an electricity mains supply, drinks bottles have been used to provide indoor lighting, using the principle of refraction. In my native South Africa, this technique has made an enormous difference to children in informal housing settlements, struggling to complete homework by the light of a kerosene lamp (which is both unhealthy and dangerous). Obviously, in a wealthy country like the UK, the call for this lighting method isn’t particularly great. It also helps to have some sunlight to refract, and we know that there are times of the year when that is in short supply here. However, if you’re an outdoorsy, roughing-it type, you might find it useful. So here‘s how to make your own.

As a variation on the theme, simply strapping a headlamp to a drink bottle filled with water will create an instant lantern. As long as you remember to point the light inward towards the bottle, of course, so that it can be refracted! This works very well with milk bottles (HDPE) too.

Based on this concept, the ‘Liter of Light‘ project has transformed lives in some of the poorest parts of the world, as well as those hit by natural disaster.

Gardening

The humble plastic bottle can also be pressed into service in your garden. They can be used for wall gardening (see picture), hydroponicscloches, and seedling propagation. They can be pressed into service to keep the slugs away from your veggies, the wasps away from the outdoor living space, and the mozzies away from your blood. Do, however, bear in mind that traps for ‘baddie’ insects might also kill some of the good guys, so do weigh up the pros and cons before installing them willy-nilly.

They can even be used to build greenhouses (or summerhouses).

You can use them to make bird feeders for both seed eaters and nectar drinkers (and probably insectivores, if you put your mind to it).

You can make a sprinkler and a bird shower. I’m not sure whether those two belong in the gardening section, to be honest. Pets and children are just as likely to enjoy them!

Air conditioning

Like the lighting solution, this one might not have as much application to the UK as to some hotter climes. But feast your eyes on this brilliant use of recycled plastic bottles, a board, and the laws of thermodynamics, to make an air conditioner that uses no electricity.

Crafting activities

Madonna and child – reclaimed materials (and polyfilla)

This is a rather miscellaneous list of craft activities which involve plastic bottles:

As you may know, plastic bottles formed part of the Madonna and child figures (see picture) made during the workshop I conducted in December. I have also seen extremely complex and sophisticated fairy villages made using plastic bottles as a base.

It seems, from the practical and functional to the whimsical and purely decorative, there is a use for these bottles.

Until next time.

 

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Plastic and you (and me)

You have almost certainly heard of the proliferation of plastic pollution that is slowly suffocating the planet. Especially if you watched the final episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, narrated by the one and only David Attenborough.

When plastic was first invented, the fact that it was virtually indestructible was a major plus. Now that we’re unable to get rid of the stuff, and we’re finding it in remote locations, and in the gizzards of animals who live far away from human habitations, we’re a little less convinced. The problem is, it’s so damned convenient… in the short term, at any rate.

I’ve seen a few threads lately, where people have been happy to report that they put all their plastic into the recycling, so their consciences are clear. And, of course, they should be. Sadly, the authorities taking care of that recycling have not always been entirely transparent or above board in their disposal techniques. Part of that is because the volume of plastic we’re generating is just too great to be coped with. Especially since China has decided they’re no longer going to be the dumping ground for the world’s garbage.

So now what? What can I do? I’m only one person!

You’re absolutely right, of course. And, as coincidence would have it, so am I. In fact, everybody is only one person. And what you can do is no less than what anyone else can do. Here is a list of some measures you can introduce to reduce the amount of plastic waste you generate.

  1. Take your own bags when you go shopping. Those plastic shopping bags are an absolute scourge! And don’t use those really flimsy plastic bags provided for fruit and veg (they just rip, anyway!). If the supermarket has a weigh-your-own option, just stick the label to one of the pears/potatoes/whatever. Or weigh the loose items, pop them into a reusable bag, and hand the printed label(s) to the cashier. If they don’t have such an option, the cashier is perfectly capable of weighing loose items.
  2. Switch to nappies/diapers that are plastic-free, and ideally reusable. There is a growing supply of these, and you’ll save money in the long run. The volume of disposable nappies being thrown away is a major contributing factor in plastic waste, particularly in the USA.
  3. Carry a reusable bottle with you – preferably not a plastic one – and refill it, rather than buying bottled water. This, of course, only works if you’re somewhere where the water quality can be trusted. You can also use your refillable container instead of the dreadful little plastic cups in waiting rooms up and down the land (particularly the NHS – what up with that?)
  4. Take your own container when you go to a restaurant, if you’re likely to take your leftovers home with you. If your restaurant refuses to play ball, take your future business elsewhere, but chances are they’ll have no problem with it.
  5. Stop using straws. If possible, go without altogether. But if you absolutely have to have a straw, it is possible to buy reusable ones. I will grant you that they’re not cheap. I will also acknowledge that it isn’t always easy to get bars and restaurants on board with this one. I recently asked for my drink to be served without a straw, but it arrived with one anyway.
  6. Rethink the way you pack your lunch. Reusable containers are the way forward.
  7. Lobby your government and your supermarket to do something about excess plastic packaging on foods, or shop somewhere that doesn’t pre-package everything up the wazoo. Some customers have resorted to removing the plastic packaging and leaving it at the store. The good news is that this approach makes the supermarket take ownership of the amount of plastic they’re generating. The bad news is that they’re likely to dispose of it in the cheapest way possible, which is unlikely to be to the benefit of the environment.
  8. Take your own cup to the coffee shop if you’re ordering your coffee to go. Yes, I know that most coffee places use paper cups, but those lids are plastic. You might even get a discount for taking your own cup. If your current coffee place doesn’t offer a discount, take your business somewhere that does – the little independents are usually pretty switched on.
  9. Switch to detergents and household cleaning products that come with a refillable option. This a growing trend, so check your locality to see if there are any outlets near you that will allow you to take and refill your own containers, charging by weight for what you take.
  10. If there is a choice between a plastic bottle and a carton, take the carton. If there is an option for a glass container, take that. This applies to all sorts of products, including food and drink.
  11. Use matches instead of plastic lighters. Or get a refillable metal lighter.
  12. Steer clear of plastic cutlery. I know that’s not always possible when you grab a meal on the fly from the roadside services. But perhaps you could get into the habit of keeping a metal spork in your car, and one in your desk drawer.
  13. Avoid microbeads. Don’t assume that it’s just beauty products that contain them, either. Some of the heavy duty hand cleaning products used in workshops and by gardeners contain microbeads too. Check the label for polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon. There are alternative products available, and you can even make your own – Pinterest is your friend!
  14. Consider making your own household cleaning products. Once again, Pinterest is your friend. It’s less complicated than you might expect.
  15. Re-use your plastic items. Over the next while, I’ll be posting a few ideas and suggestions for crafty items you can make, using reclaimed plastic. Watch this space.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It’s also not always possible to do all these things. But let’s have a crack at it.

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Fly tipping in reverse… or why the Upsycho needs a van

Since moving into full time Upcycler mode, I have developed a distinct tic. Every time we drive past a skip, I practically give myself whiplash, trying to see if there’s anything useful being chucked out. There often is, but sadly, I can’t usually fit it into my car. I drive a great big monster of a Volvo S80, but its boot (trunk) is smaller than most and its back seat doesn’t go flat. Both for the same reason: there is a built-in fridge in my car where the middle back seat should be. Go figure.

A while back, I was taking Jess for a walk, when I spotted a broken pine TV stand on top of the bins (trash cans) of a house not far from mine. I helped myself to it, popping a note through the letter box, in case they hadn’t meant to chuck it out. It became two dog beds.

Two dog beds

In the summer, I took my Mom birding at a local sanctuary, and we spotted a pile of trash dumped by the side of the access road. It included two plastic crates that I was sure I could use, but my Mom was so horrified at the mere suggestion, that I didn’t retrieve them. I’m so sorry I didn’t, because they would have made great dog beds and plastic is a terrible product to send to landfill because it doesn’t biodegrade.

Last month, for several days in a row, I saw a very nice armchair dumped by the side of the road on my way to work. Sadly, I just knew it wouldn’t fit in the car. A real pity, because it was crying out for an Upsycho makeover. Eventually, the council must have removed it because it (and the rest of the junk dumped with it by a fly-tipper) disappeared.

Two weeks ago, I spotted a tea trolley, dumped on the exit ramp from the local Sainsbury. It was a blind bend with no safe place to stop, so I promised myself that I would go there on foot next time I visited the store, and retrieve it. Someone beat me to it. I hope it was someone who was able to do something useful with it.

Just a few days ago, I spotted a metal item sticking out of the undergrowth beside the A509. It was during rush hour traffic, so I had a full second or two to take in some sort of square section frame and circles. I went back yesterday to investigate.

Half buried in the undergrowth

I dragged it out of the undergrowth and across the road to my car. Such a simple sentence to type. Not such a simple thing to do. The road had been deserted when I crossed it empty handed. But now that I was trying to make it back across the road, carrying two unwieldy metal structures, everybody seemed to want to travel to or from Isham! Finally getting across the road to a clear patch, I laid them down to see what they were.

My hard-won treasures

I hadn’t anticipated that right-angled assembly and I had no tools with me to take them apart. Getting them into the car was no mean feat.

Getting them into the car was no mean feat
My Volvo S80 was not designed to do duty as a workhorse

Getting them to my workshop was the easy bit. Once there, I stood them upright and inspected them. I was quite surprised at how tall they are. Over two metres. Perhaps 220cm. One section is bent (top left of the picture below), and there is some rust to remove. Other than that, the frames are in pretty good nick. Obviously that fabric will have to go, but I have plenty in the stash to replace it with.

Over 2m tall!

What I don’t understand is why someone dumped them where they did. It can be a dangerous stretch of road. Plus, they could just as easily have taken them to our recycling plant, which has a special section for metal waste. People are weird.

Watch this space to see what becomes of my fly-tip-retrieval.