A plasticky month of May

To tie in with Plastic Free July, we’re ramping up our efforts and challenging ourselves to ditch all single-use plastic for that month. Seems easy enough, right? I thought so too, until I started researching and making mental notes of all the things we’d have have to do without.

Plastic is so ubiquitous in our lives it’s easy to not notice it. But once you start paying attention it.is.everywhere.

The biggie for us is going to be packaging. We’ve done away with the plastic bags, bottles and straws but we’re still very much in supermarket mode. So there’s planning and prepping to be done; and this month I learnt a lesson about the importance of this. My weaning-off-plastic attempts were badly scuppered. I snuck off for a weekend away and both my boys are May babies, so let’s just say that some bad planning resulted in me falling off the wagon (there was even a plastic-wrapped-suitcase incident due to a broken zip:-(

But I’m back on track and my homework for the next few weeks is to get sussed on bulk shopping destinations and other non-packaged grocery options. And root out all those pesky bits of plastic that insert themselves into our lives.

Plastic-free kids birthday parties? That’s one to start planning now to get right next year!

Girl crush!

I’m totally crushing on two powerhouses of the zero waste movement. Gorgeous beyond, twenty-something New Yorker Lauren Singer is the brainchild behind Trash is for Tossers. Uber stylish Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home is often dubbed the founder of the zero waste movement. She’s been living waste free with her family in LA since 2008.

Bea Johnson
Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home

Beyond the ridiculous amounts of cool they exude is a powerful message – our planet is in trouble and there is a whole lot we can do about it. Bea Johnson uses beetroot juice as lipstick. She’s that extreme. And while many of us are stuck on the 3R’s she’s expanded hers to 5 – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.  On the sites of these two zero wasters you’ll find images of their years worth of waste in a single glass jar (that’s as much waste as I come back with after a kids birthday party!).

Much of what they (and other zero wasters for that matter) do and propose seems, at this juncture in my life, unattainable. But it’s good to have role models right? Every now and then, scrolling through their feeds, something sticks and small tweaks are made.

*Bea Johnson might be touring South Africa in May! Watch this space!

Mucking in

Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.

Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin.  Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:

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Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
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Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
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More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
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Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
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Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
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More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
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Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
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Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.

Energy guzzlers

It’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien