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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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Beyond ‘junk with paint on’

Today, I spent a happy hour talking upcycling with an engaging bunch of seniors. Bearing in mind that many of them remember ‘make do and mend’ from before I was born, they had as much to teach me as I did them. But that was kind of the point. I wanted them to see that that mentality had regained currency. I wanted to remind them of the fun challenge of making something out of something else.

When you raise the topic of upcycling, some people will inevitably roll their eyes. Some time back, one guy flat out told me that upcycling was the process of ‘turning junk into painted junk’.

And that is certainly one possible approach. You could indeed take some piece of cheap furniture, slap a coat of paint on it, and make it fit for another go ’round. Why not? When money is tight, it works. The nursery which served both my sons through their babyhood was very much an example of that. A second hand cot, which I painted. Curtains which I shortened, using the off cut to make cushions for the pine rocking chair (bought new by Mr Namasi). An antique yellow wood wardrobe, passed down through the family, into which I inserted shelves for the tiny clothes. A piece of net curtain which served as a mosquito net, and a deterrent for the cat (so many horror stories about babies being suffocated by cats… to this day, I have no idea if any of them were true!) A tatty desk, which I painted and topped with a padded changing mat, and above which I hung an wall-mounted shelf for all the nappy change/bath time necessities. I had one friend who was absolutely adamant that she would have nothing secondhand for her new baby. But the joy it brought me to paint the walls and furniture in that little room remains with me to this day.

So: yes, much of it was painted junk. And it was wonderful.

But there’s more to it than that.

Some of the ladies at today’s presentation remembered their mothers cutting down their fathers’ army military trousers and jackets to make trousers and skirts for the children. Some of them even that themselves. They remembered the challenge of turning military dress shirts into miniature shirts for sons and blouses for daughters. Women who had served made over their own uniforms to wear afterward. One lady had fond memories of using smocking to turn anything and everything into something pretty. These days, smocking is enjoying something of a revival, but more commonly in connection with soft furnishings than clothing.

One lady remembered her father working in a ribbon factory, and bringing home the pieces that couldn’t be used. She would use these to make baby blankets, earning what she called ‘bobbin money’ (new expression to me).

We talked about furniture: restoring beautiful pieces built to last; reusing the drawer handles, feet and hinges on pieces which had finally given up the ghost. We talked about repairing cars by using spare parts from scrap yards. Before cars had on-board computers, replacing a faulty carburettor with a new one was something one just did.

Items made from pallet ends

I showed them some smaller examples of my own work: my Madonna and child; my sock dolls; a few Christmas decorations, ornaments made from the rings out of lampshades, light bulbs, corks, old blankets, pallet ends (see picture); little boxes I had decorated to use for trinkets, etc.

I took a deep breath and showed them some of my failures, too. Not that anything is ever a complete failure: at worst, it serves as a learning experience, but sometimes I find that if I set a thing aside for a little while, I’ll come back to it with fresh ideas or a new direction.

Sometimes, a coat of paint is enough. Sometimes more is needed.

I have a beautiful pair of old bi-fold doors that I want to use as the starting point for a sideboard, and a few beautiful arm chairs that I’m planning to re-upholster. These items deserve better than a trip to landfill. And – I believe – that the young men who once occupied a room full of my upcycled pieces that served as their nursery, deserve to live in a world not overrun by landfill sites.

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The singles’ club…for socks

Today I’m talking about – of all things – odd socks. The good thing about textiles is that they are highly recyclable. Old jeans and jackets can be used to make bags, or re-cover chairs. Odd socks, not so much. Old textile products can be ground up to make insulation and wadding, so there is that option. But let’s see what else we can do with them.

The Singles’ Club

A permanent feature in the Romeis household is The Singles’ Club. This little basin is the repository for socks which inexplicably emerge from the laundry without their mates. When it starts to get a little full, someone (usually me – it’s my favourite chore) will go through it and perform a mass wedding ceremony, as long lost partners are reunited.

When the children were little, I used to make up stories about the socks as I paired them up. Sometimes socks would look as if they belonged together, when they didn’t. And sometimes I would find that I was inadvertently trying to match up one of Mommy’s white sports socks with one belonging to one of the boys. All of this would get woven into the narrative. If Mr Namasi was in earshot, there might be a carefully ribald joke or two that would – in the manner of children’s theatre since time out of mind – sail right over the head of the youngsters and occasionally (if Mommy was very witty) cause coffee to mysteriously emerge from Daddy’s nose.

Inevitably, some of the socks are never reunited with their partners. And what do we do with those?

If your family is anything like mine, wearing mismatched socks is an option. I know one young lady who just slings all her socks into a drawer and wears the first two that come to hand each day. But I find wearing socks of different thicknesses irritating, so I don’t do that. That said, a black sock with red heel and toe can safely be worn with a black sock with yellow heel and toe from the same 3-pack. No-one is going to see the heels and toes, after all. A yellow googly-eye sock can happily be worn with a pink googly-eye sock from the same pack. The socks are daft to begin with. Wearing different coloured ones is somehow within the bounds of acceptable eccentricity – even with a suit, if you do it with aplomb.

Sock doll

But it’s the socks that just can’t even be ‘mismatched up’ that are the problem. So here are some uses:

  • If they’re made from natural fibres, you could use them to buff your shoes. This works particularly well if you stuff one sock with a few others.
  • Adopting the same approach of popping a few socks inside another one, will give you a great defogger for the inside of the car windscreen. Once again, it’s best to go with natural fibres here, or you’ll just end up smearing the condensation around inside of wiping it away.
  • They also make great duster-gloves. Just pop one on your hand and wipe down the various surfaces that need dusting.
  • Any sock, natural fibres or not, can be used to protect shoes when packing.
  • Pop a bar of soap inside a sock and tie it to your outside tap for washing your hands when working outdoors. Just remember to cover it when it rains, and you should probably bring it indoors in the rainy season.
  • Socks make great covers for golf club heads.
  • Or how about a pair of kneepads for your crawling infant?
  • I have a friend who makes a nifty hair bun using socks. I never acquired the skill when my hair was longer, but then I have never been able to ‘hair’ very well. Here’s a link for those with more skill than me in this area.
  • If you have a very small dog and a large sock, you can make a jacket for your pooch with little hassle.
  • Then, of course, there are the myriad sock dolls and puppets to be found on Pinterest. I’ve had a go at a few of these myself, and they are rather cute. The one shown here is one I made.
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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.