Thursday, 27 April 2017

saving the planet - one plastic bag at the time

For many years, we paid The Reclaimer, a non profitable organisation, to recycle materials that our local recycling facility does not deal with. This includes hard plastics (other than plastic bottles, for example the lids of said bottles, margarine tubs and fruit punnet), soft plastics and many more things. They recycled our old batteries long before the local authorities have started accepting them. Although a not for profit company, The Reclaimer still needed to be able to support their employees and unfortunately, at the beginning of this year, they went into administration. I am so disappointed! All our 'non-recyclables' (by council standards) are once more going to landfill. It pains me to to throw out all that plastic.

It seems the best way to deal with this new to us problem is to try and avoid plastic even more than before. I have suggested cotton string bags like these to buy loose fruit and vegetables at the supermarket but there is some resistance in the family. We don't want to be the most embarrassing family in town. I am working on it. Some retailers, for example Lidl, started replacing the ubiquitous plastic punnet with cardboard equivalents, which can be recycled easily and everywhere. Others are not so good. And of course the plastic wrap needs to be dealt with also. Not all of those can go into the supermarket bag recycling containers.

We have plasticware tubs for food storage and transport. They are ever so practical and I doubt we'll stop using those anytime soon. Of course we don't throw them out after use.

James and Alistair have sturdy lunch boxes and all their food goes in loose, unwrapped. We avoid buying portioned lunch snacks etc, or juice cartons. Annie sometimes sneaks them in (she makes all the lunch boxes). Annie also wraps her own lunch in thick layers of tin foil or clingfilm. She neither recycles or re-uses either. It makes me a little cross. To be fair, clingfilm is difficult to reuse. She says she can't use a lunchbox because there is so much stuff in her school bag and there is no space for it. I think she just likes neatly wrapped food parcels. I decided to give her an alternative (and at the same time satisfy my creative needs).

Beeswax cloth had been on my list of things to make for a while. I think it makes a good alternative to clingfilm and small plastic bags that you might use for snacks etc (those little multi coloured fun bags with stickers you can buy for your children's lunch boxes are a pet hate of mine). You can buy beeswax cloth quite expensively in fancy places but there is really no need for the expense. Making beeswax cloth is very simple and satisfying. There are always fabric remnants on my shelves and beeswax is something useful to have for any household. Just imagine all the lip balm you could make, or furniture polish. I cut some pretty fabric squares and rectangles, placed these on greaseproof paper on a baking tray and sprinkled the fabric with pellets of beeswax. This went into a warm oven. I set the oven to 150 degrees (conventional, not fan), which worked just fine. The pellets melt and the liquid wax is absorbed by the fabric. Gaps are easy to see, just add another pellet or two. I used too much wax initially. This was easy to fix, I just popped it back in the oven for a few minutes, lifted it swiftly from the tray, leaving behind melted surplus wax (enough for another piece of fabric). I wasn't too sure about sizes that might work and the lot you see above is being trialled for various foods. I have transported my food parcels in handbags, back packs and laptop bags, and so far, there has been no food spillage. The warmth of your hands helps sealing the food neatly without closures or string but I would not use the wrap for squishable, potentially messy foods (a tomato comes to mind). There are plenty of uses still to be explored. The wraps seem to be a good conversation starter, too.

Of course just because beeswax is a natural product doesn't mean it can't be damaging to the environment. Using a biodegradable product for example has no inherent value if the product, after use, does not end up in a waste management system that uses the biodegradability features! 
My skeptical scientific mind made me look at the scientific literature on biodegradability of beeswax (just because I have nothing better to do with my life). Through work I have access to a seemingly limitless library of peer reviewed scientific journals. I am also used to read scientific literature, which helps.

Here is my verdict: Beeswax is biodegradable in a relatively short period of time. To give you a measure, around 84% biodegrades in about 80 days (that's how long the experiments in the literature read lasted). You can put the beeswax wraps in your compost heap but it takes a while to compost and you may want to cut the no longer useful wraps into smaller pieces. It also depends a bit on your compost heap of course. It is also biodegradable in the the waste water management system. I am not sure about the biodegradability in a landfill.

This leads me on to the care for your beeswax wrap. It is washable like any other food container. The wax has quite a low melting temperature and you probably don't want to use water steaming hot water in case wax builds up in your sink drains. It solidifies really quickly when cooled down!

So there you go. My beeswax wraps may be a fad and may not make a difference but at the very least, I am trying. Sam has inspected the neat little rolls in our kitchen drawer a few times, he seems quite fascinated but I doubt he'll use them. Annie said the wraps are cool and James and Alistair love having their flapjacks/oatcakes etc wrapped in cheerful pieces of cloth.

P.S. The creative possibilities that open up now are endless... wipe clean make up pouches, pencil pouches....