Eco tips for greener, cheaper living

If you’re doing as much as you can to live a greener life and you’re not acquainted with Nancy Birtwhistle, that’s something you need to remedy ASAP.

And if you’re thinking that you don’t have the means to follow fancy sustainable lifestyle tips, then that’s yet another reason to follow Nancy B. The best-selling author and influencer doesn’t push any products; on the contrary she shows you how to save money by cutting back on stuff, chemicals and energy costs by making or doing it yourself – and yes, that extends to making her own compost pile.

 Because Nancy never recommends products, followers have overwhelmed her with questions about where to get some of the basic items she uses, especially for home-made cleaning creams and sprays. To help out, she invited followers to nominate their favourite eco-suppliers and a list of these is pinned to the top of her Instagram account.

We’ve been following Nancy’s advice for nearly two years, long before she had the world-wide 594,000 followers she has today.  We make up her cleaning spray recipes instead of buying ones that are damaging to the environment and we’re glad to see she now appears regularly on BBC’s Morning Live.

 I introduced my Greek daughter-in-law to Nancy and she’s a fan now too. Having grown up during Greece’s financial crisis, my daughter-in-law remembers her family making a little go a long way. This included growing their own food and making their own olive oil. She’s also passionate about recycling, having seen at first hand the devastation that climate change is wreaking on her country with increasing forest fires, heatwaves and floods.

Back to Nancy – her latest book, The Green Budget Guide, was published last month and it’s my new bedtime reading. I’m gripped; it’s not so much a Whodunnit as a Howdunnit.

For example, for a long time I’ve wanted to learn how to darn socks but just never got round to finding out. This is something I remember my grandma doing when I was a child if she spotted my big toe poking out through a sock.  The sock would be whisked away and returned with beautiful, neat darning that lasted forever.  How incredibly wasteful to throw a pair of socks away just for one hole. Well now I know what to do, thanks to a snippet in Nancy’s book.

Advice is included on how to rescue items instead of throwing them away, make flexi-recipes, create  your own gifts, freeze fruit and veg so it doesn’t clump into a solid block, make odour neutraliser for second-hand clothes and furniture, use up expired spices and ‘mop up’ shards of broken glass using slices of bread.… the list is endless.  

As food waste is a subject close to this blog’s heart, we thought we’d share a section from the book on this topic.

Do you know what is the single most wasted food in the UK?

Bread. Around 20 million slices a day get binned.

Let’s change this. If you have a small household, it’s a good idea when you buy a loaf, to put half in the freezer. The second half can be thawed in less than an hour. If you live alone, freeze the whole loaf and take slices as required. Frozen slices of bread can easily be separated from the loaf using the blade of a round-ended knife.

The plastic wrapping that contains shop-bought loaves encourages mould because the bread’s moisture as it evaporates has nowhere to go. Nancy remembers that when she was a child, bread was sold in waxed paper. She has come up with her own method of making reusable, washable, long-lasting cotton bags that are coated in beeswax. These remain breathable and thanks to the anti-bacterial qualities of beeswax also resist mould.  Her recipe uses thin cotton fabric, greaseproof paper, pellets of beeswax and an iron to melt the wax.

Because processed white sliced bread in plastic wrapping turns mouldy before it goes stale, keep an eye on it and get to it before mould appears so you can upcycle it with the following tips:  

  • Freeze breadcrumbs – Cut into 2.5cm chunks then blitz in the bowl of a food processor using the blade attachment. The breadcrumbs in this state will freeze perfectly so simply place in a bag or box and use them from frozen. Home-made bread tends to go stale and hard before it goes mouldy and can be grated if you don’t have a food processor.
  • Instant thickener – Adding dry flour or cornflour to a hot casserole or sauce will create lumps so always mix the flour to a paste with a little cold water first before stirring through. Alternatively use breadcrumbs as a last-minute speedy thickener. Stir in a tablespoon at a time to quickly thicken without fear of lumps.
  • Instant crunch – heat 1-2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan then sprinkle over a cup of fresh breadcrumbs, a sprinkle of dried garlic and dried herbs and fry until crisp and golden. This makes a tasty instant crunch to top off a shepherd’s pie, fish pie, pasta bake or salad.
  • Shelf breadcrumbs – If you’re stuck for freezer space you can dry your breadcrumbs: spread the fresh breadcrumbs on a baking tray in a thin layer and place in the oven to dry out. If the oven has been on for something else, pop in the tray of breadcrumbs when you have finished cooking and before the oven cools down. The breadcrumbs once dried, will feel coarse and will not stick to the hands. For a very fine crumb, blitz again in a blender once dried. Once cool, the breadcrumbs can be stored in a jar in a cupboard indefinitely – perfect for coating Scotch eggs, fish cakes, fish fingers, chicken and vegetables.

Check out Nancy’s account and books – you’ll make small changes to the way you live, and those changes will make a big difference.

Julie

Why is recycling harder than it should be?

This is a complaint commonly heard across the UK, except perhaps in Wales, which has one of the best recycling rates in the world – currently nearly 66 per cent, with plans to bump this up to 70 per cent by next year. 

But across the rest of the UK, recycling rates have plateaued at around 43 per cent in recent years.

A report to the House of Commons recently (December 2023) noted that there had been no improvement in recycling since 2011.    

Although 90 per cent of households in the UK routinely recycle, most people don’t find it easy. Confusion around council rules doesn’t help, with at least 39 different bin regimes running across 391 different local authorities.

 This postcode lottery is set to change within the next two years under the government’s Simpler Recycling plans. From the end of March 2026 all councils in England will be required to recycle the same materials and have a standard of three containers (bins, boxes or bags) – for general refuse (residual), mixed dry recycling and food waste.  

 There is now a list of items which all councils will recycle, including aluminium foil and certain types of plastic packaging. Similar measures will apply to businesses, hospitals, schools and universities, so people will be doing the same thing at home, work and school and will no longer need to check what their council will accept for recycling. The rules could also apply to places of worship, charity shops, prisons and hostels.

A game-changer in recycling will be the new rules governing extended producer responsibility (EPR), which mean producers of packaging will have to label their products to make it easier for people to know what can and can’t be recycled. They will also become responsible for the cost of recycling the packaging. To get ready for this, manufacturers of products such as Pringles, ketchup and toothpaste are upgrading production lines so that packaging will be fully recyclable.

It’s hoped that these initiatives will increase recycling rates to between 52-60 per cent by 2035.

Ready or not?

These are big changes, but will councils be ready?  The report mentioned above stated that uncertainty is stopping businesses and local authorities from preparing for the changes. As a result, there is a risk that there will be insufficient facilities to deal with increased volumes of recycling, meaning more plastic could be sent to landfill than before.

 Without the certainty of a long-term infrastructure plan, private sector companies are reluctant to invest in new recycling facilities. 

One such company, Veolia – the French international waste giant – said this month that it wanted to spend more in the UK to divert waste for reuse but was put off by lack of clarity on policy.

Countries with the best recycling rates understand the importance of educating the public. Germany has achieved the best rates in the world – almost 69 per cent – thanks to information campaigns and simplified labels on packaging.   

The best 16 councils for recycling in the UK are all in Wales. Pembrokeshire is top, with 73 per cent of household waste recycled. The Welsh school curriculum includes lessons on how food waste is converted into energy and schools organise trips to anaerobic digestion plants.

Dividing recycling into separate bins reduces contamination, such as cardboard getting wet from washed glass jars. Because uncontaminated waste is easier to recycle into higher-quality materials, councils get more money as a result. If people don’t know how to add items correctly to the right bins, the collected material is often heavily contaminated.

Recycling for profit

Part of the success in Wales is down to the public being well informed about the cost of contamination and the fact that their council can make money from the waste collected. Because every household has the same bins and separates the same materials, recycling is far less contaminated, which attracts companies that can recycle it for profit. Understanding this makes people far more likely to take care not to contaminate waste materials.

Insight into the cost came last year when Maidstone Borough Council in Kent launched a scheme to clarify what can and can’t be recycled by putting hangers on bins. This came after a two-month period in which contamination of recycling loads had cost taxpayers £25,000. Extra costs are incurred when contaminated loads are refused by the recycling centre.

  If refuse collectors see that the wrong materials have been put into recycling bins they will not empty them – they place a sticker on the bin to say it is contaminated but don’t have time to let householders know what it is that has contaminated each individual bin.  

Did you know:

  • The council with the most waste collections in the country is Bristol with 13. It’s the only big English city to achieve above average recycling rates, with 46 per cent.
  •  According to WRAP (Waste and Action Resources Programme) more than half of the population miss opportunities to recycle common items.
  • People under 35 dispose of more items incorrectly than older people. Councils with a higher median age have better recycling rates.
  • The age group that recycles the most is 55 – 64-year-olds, who say they always recycle to the best of their ability.
  • The most rural areas recycle almost 10 per cent more than urban areas on average.

When is the right time to get another dog?

This time last year we marked the first anniversary of our dog’s death.  I wrote a blog at the time (below) about how hard it is to lose your animal best friend, and how people deal in different ways with their pet’s remains.

Since then, people have kept asking us when we’re getting another dog, and we still don’t know when – or if.

So now we’ve been without Rocky for two years. Some people get another dog straight away, others decide they can never go through that loss again.     

Rocky was my first dog; I used to be one of those people who didn’t understand and I’m ashamed to say must have been useless when people around me were grieving for their dogs.

I’m drawn to hearing about other people’s experiences. I read a very moving article by James Middleton, brother of the Princess of Wales, about the loss of his therapy dog Ella, who had helped him to cope with suicidal depression. Dog trainer Graeme Hall, the star of Channel 5’s Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly, wrote about the loss of a beloved dog, saying he struggled so badly he now realises he should have had therapy at the time.

 I also read about a book that has become a surprise word-of-mouth bestseller in France, about a teacher’s journey through grief following his dog’s death (His Smell After the Rain). The book’s author, Cedric Sapin-Defour, says he wrote it because he wanted to state plainly his love for his dog, Ubac, without feeling ridiculous. The English translation is due out later this year, but I found a translated paragraph in the online magazine The Connexion, which describes how Ubac ‘recalibrates the atmosphere to make it better. His mere presence is a blessing. He swallows all the rancour, and, as if filtering it through an invisible gill, releases joy. Those who aren’t used to dogs, surprised to be feeling suddenly so much better, must wonder what has imperceptibly loosened in their life.’  This is such a wonderful way of describing how dogs make life better. The change is real, we don’t just imagine it.     

 For Christmas my husband got me a book – Keira and Me – by the TV Supervet, Noel Fitzpatrick, about the loss of his border terrier Keira. He expresses something that all animal lovers understand when he says, ‘People who have never cried in their lives despite all manner of crises, cry when the animal friend they love is in pain. As one man who wept in my arms recently said to me, in reference to the dog he loved, ‘She unlocked a part of my heart I didn’t even know existed. ‘

When we lost Rocky, his vet said to us, ‘Perhaps your next dog will find you.’ I liked this idea, it felt like we wouldn’t have to make an actual decision.  I’ve spent the last two years waiting for our next dog to find us. In my mind it would be like a film, with us discovering a puppy left on our doorstep, or finding one that’s been abandoned in the park.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

 My husband wanted to wait a decent length of time so he wouldn’t feel somehow disloyal to Rocky, but he is now prepared to take the plunge again and it’s me who’s hesitating. I wonder whether if we wait too long, we might pass a point of no return.

On our pointless human-only walks, my husband never notices people, only their canine companions. He rushes up to every dog we see trying to befriend them.  I call him a dog botherer. I, on the other hand, avoid Instagram because of course it knows I love dogs, so I’m inundated with them.

I argue that getting another dog is easier for my husband because he won’t have the job of dog-training. It quickly became obvious when we got Rocky that despite my total lack of experience, I would have to be the trainer in the house. My husband would always give Rocky anything he wanted after resisting for all of a nano-second.  Rocky would glance over at me – I swear he could roll his eyes – as if to say, What a pushover!

At mealtimes, Rocky always left me in peace while begging constantly at my husband’s feet, betraying the fact that Dad fed him scraps when my back was turned. Dog training is time-consuming but essential.  You must also be prepared to change your life so that your dog’s needs are met, and you need back-up care too. When we got Rocky we had three children living at home so back-up was usually available. Our sons promise us they would always be available to help out with a new dog-brother, but would they really, or would it be like loading the dishwasher – always somebody else’s turn?

Our dogless lives have become easier in a lot of ways but smaller too. Anxiety and irritability seem closer to the surface, and we certainly don’t laugh as much as we used to. The house was full of laughter with Rocky. Nothing makes me laugh quite as much as his performance every morning when he would swagger proudly across the room with one of my bed socks dangling from his mouth. He would deposit this sock under the dining table, looking for all the world as if he had cunningly hunted and killed a fluffy pink rat. He did this with a pretend casual air, but it was really just a big show to impress us, to prove he was a natural born killer – of bed socks. Ah yes, as Sapin-Defour says – the joy….

Do dogs make us better people? I’m sure they do. There’s a quote that I love – ‘Be the person your dog thinks you are.’ How much better the world would be if we could! 

When we lost Rocky, people reached out to us and it really did help to know that they knew he wasn’t ‘just a dog’. There’s a fear that you’re not allowed real grief because it wasn’t a human being that died.  I was moved when a friend who has a fear of dogs came round with flowers. I’d always kept Rocky away from her, respecting her fear. But she knew how I was feeling; she remembered how she’d felt as a teenager when she lost her pet cat. 

Dogs have silent wisdom, they know stuff. They know that sometimes you just have to wait till things get better, and they wait right alongside you. Rocky used to pick up on every emotion and sit out the bad ones with us. You can relax with a dog, knowing they will never say the wrong thing or make you feel bad about feeling bad. It’s why they’re so good as comfort animals for children and adults who are struggling to cope with this world. Dogs don’t try to hurry you along, they let you go at your own pace – unless it’s dinnertime. And sometimes that’s what you need too – to be brought back down to earth (and food).

Shortly after Rocky died, I bumped into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I had no energy for small talk and just came straight out with ‘Our dog’s just died.’ He immediately empathised and advised me to get another one straight away, as he had done. This reminded me of a friend who, on the very day that his cat died went out and bought another black cat identical to the one he’d just lost. He even gave it the same name.  This struck me at the time as a futile attempt to leapfrog grief – but what do I know? I’ve become a person who moves my dog’s ashes around the room so he doesn’t get bored with the same view.

 When people decide they’ll never get another dog it’s because they can’t face the grief again. This is the thing – unless you’re elderly when you get a dog, you know you will outlive them.  You are voluntarily entering into a pact that will end with your heart breaking in around 10 years’ time.

It makes you wonder why we do it to ourselves. But we know why. Despite everything, it’s worth it. And it was. It really was.

Julie

Read more about Rocky and the different ways that people deal with their pet’s remains – including composting – here.

Top tips on making your own compost mixes

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about making your own compost mixes, Garden Organic is the place to go – and with the ban on peat compost for home gardeners coming in this year, there’s never been a better time.

 Last week I joined a Garden Organic online talk about peat-free growing, which I can thoroughly recommend. Talks are helpful if you find it easier to learn through listening rather than reading, especially if the talker is as knowledgeable as our host, Anton. Having the chance to ask questions anonymously in the Q and A session is really helpful too.

A Garden Organic (GO) survey showed that very few gardeners make all the compost their garden needs; the majority use a mixture of homemade and shop bought. If you want to garden as sustainably as you can, GO has loads of advice on achieving this balance.  

A few things I learned:

  • Peat only came into use in the 1960s with plants being sold in containers in garden centres. Garden plants don’t need peat, which is virtually devoid of nutrients. Some countries, such as Australia, have no source of peat so their horticulture industry has never depended on it. 
  • In a bag of peat-free compost you will find:  wood fibre (a waste product from sawmills that is also in demand for use in bio mass boilers)/ composted bark (adds structure and air spaces)/ coir waste (a waste product from coconut plantations)/green waste compost (from council garden waste collections).
  • Growing media shouldn’t be used on a large scale to improve the soil – the resources used to make potting compost are limited. To improve soil, use garden waste compost, homemade compost, manures and green manures. To fill raised beds, use topsoil.
  • It’s a good idea to buy in seed compost because it’s difficult to get right yourself. Get the best you can afford because a little goes a long way. Seeds contain their own nutrients so they will germinate successfully in low-nutrient material with good drainage.
  • If you want to adapt multipurpose compost for use as seed compost, remove larger pieces, put through a coarse sieve, mix 50/50 with rewetted coir block.

Peat-free challenges

  • Peat-free compost behaves differently to peat – the main challenge is watering. Because of their high coir and woodchip content, peat-free mixes tend to dry out more easily. They also have a coarse texture, which can appear dry on the surface but still be damp further down.
  • With pots, watering little and often is best. Check by putting your finger in the mix to see if it’s dry all the way through. Water by going round the pot in a circle to get water to drain all over. Repeat a few times.
  • Water seed trays from below. Use a fine mister or waterer for the surface.
  • Peat-free compost doesn’t store as well as peat so only buy what you need. Don’t leave out in the rain; tiny holes in the bag will let in water which will wash away nutrients. Don’t subject to high temperatures by leaving out in glasshouse. Don’t buy bags that are faded as they might have been lying around for a while. If a mix smells bad it may have turned anaerobic, so return it.  

Feeding tips

A challenge with peat-free compost is that it can run out of nutrients more quickly – after 4 weeks.

  •  After 4 weeks, water with a sustainable liquid feed using comfrey or nettle leaves. Make your own comfrey feed by leaving 1kg of comfrey leaves in 15 litres of water for 5-6 weeks. Use neat to water plants.
  • For a concentrated comfrey liquid feed – stuff leaves into a drainpipe and let the liquid drip out of the bottom. Dilute 1 -10 and use on flowering and fruiting plants. This feed doesn’t smell – adding water is what makes the concoction smell.
  • Urine also gives a very good balanced feed (dilute 1 – 10). Fun fact – the average person produces enough nitrogen in their urine to fertilise 1 and a half tonnes of tomatoes, yet this usually gets flushed away to be treated at high expense, together with drinking-standard water.   
  • Use worm compost mixed with homemade compost as top dressing. Worm compost provides high levels of readily available nitrogen. Use sparingly.

For information and advice about making your own mixes, check out the GO website –  Garden Organic – Discover organic growing

Garden Organic recommends trying different peat-free composts to see which you have most success with. The charity has had good results with Melcourt’s Sylvagrow range for seed and potting mixes.

A word about peat

Garden Organic has long campaigned for an end to the use of peat in horticulture.  Peatlands cover 3 per cent of land surface but store 30 per cent of the earth’s soil carbon. Peat only regenerates at a rate of 1mm a year. In the UK, peat extraction accounts for 5 per cent of CO2 emissions. More than 95% of lowland bogs in the UK have been destroyed or damaged as peat has been extracted on an industrial scale.

Garden Organic’s online talks (webinars) are held on a donation basis to help support the charity’s work in helping people to garden organically. 

If you live near the charity’s Coventry base, you can attend courses or workshops in person, or else watch out for the next webinar. Online courses are also available and you can write in with questions too.

Julie

England’s best kept ‘secret’ – food waste collections

If you were under the impression that the whole of the UK should now be full speed ahead with weekly separate food waste collections, you’d be right.

 That was the plan under the Environment Act of 2021. In our house we talk of little else, of course, but if you don’t, and you’ve been too busy to keep up with new developments, you might have missed the news that the deadline has been pushed back from 2023 to March 2026. This is to give councils more time to prepare. (Some councils will be given longer than this to allow existing long-term disposal contracts to expire.)

Around half the councils in England already provide a separate food waste collection, as do all those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But if your council is one of the 50 per cent in England that doesn’t, you may be surprised to hear that this is going to happen at all.  It’s the best kept secret in England. Half the country knows all about food waste collections, the other half thinks you must be joking or mistaken if you mention them. If you know someone who doesn’t have a food waste collection in their local area, ask them what they know about it.

Keeping food waste separate

When I discussed the impending changes with my father-in-law (a resident of Worcestershire), he was shocked to learn that in the not-too-distant future he will have to separate out his food waste and put it in a designated container kept outside his house to be emptied by his local council.

He looked dubious as though I must have got my facts wrong. When I managed to convince him, he asked ‘Why don’t I know this?’

 It’s a good question. When the change comes, it will be big news in large parts of the country. If people are not used to scraping peelings and leftovers into a caddy on a kitchen worktop, it’s a huge change to their daily habits.   

7 litre Kitchen Caddy

Of course, people who compost are already used to treating food waste differently from other waste – they know it’s not rubbish but a precious resource – so this will be nothing new for them. They will simply carry on composting. Depending on how much waste they have, they may use the council service for overspill.  

Nearly two years ago I got my parents using bokashi bins for their food waste. They have no council collection service and were horrified to think that their food waste was going to landfill or incineration. We started a system which involves me taking their filled bokashi bins – after the requisite two-week fermentation period – to empty into our Green Johanna composter. At 85 and 82, my parents are now enthusiastic bokashi fans and wouldn’t dream of throwing an apple core in their general bin.   

Experienced composters think the implementation of food waste collections could prompt more people to compost. Since people will already be separating waste, it’s not much more effort to empty a kitchen caddy into a compost bin rather than a bigger external container.

Carry on composting

At least with composting you’re managing the process of decomposition so it’s breaking down aerobically, and at source – where the waste has been produced. You also benefit from the results too – your own free compost.

There’s no doubt that separate food waste collections are a great thing; they need to happen and happen well. In the UK 70 per cent of food waste happens at home, but only around a third of people understand the harm that this causes the planet, not only in the disposal of the waste but in the production and transport of the food in the first place.

 So educating people around these issues is a vital part of the new system. An additional benefit to separating waste out is that as people become more aware of how much they are wasting, they tend to waste less. 

 Learning about food waste

When food waste is collected along with general waste (usually called residual waste) it is either incinerated or buried in landfill and left to rot anaerobically, which causes greenhouse gas emissions. For every tonne of rotting food waste, there are over 600kg of carbon equivalent emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide.

 But when food waste is collected separately, it is taken to specially designed anaerobic digestion (AD) plants, where it is reprocessed to create fertiliser (for spreading on land) and biogas, which can be used to generate electricity. The government’s website says this digestion process will not include a composting phase due to concerns around cost and planning.

The website sounds confident that all these changes will occur smoothly, as part of the government’s target to eliminate biodegradable waste sent to landfill from 2028. But some people in the industry are concerned at the scale of how much infrastructure needs to be in place before the March 2026 deadline.

As yet, little seems to be being discussed upfront – hence my father-in-law not having a clue – and yet it will be a considerable task to inform and educate millions of people so they know what to do to avoid costly waste contamination.  In addition, with election year upon us, will these plans slip from focus?

As mentioned above, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and half the councils in England have already made the change, but with the other 50 per cent in England yet to join the party, it’s still a long way to go.

 More AD plants will be needed – some estimates suggest there should be another 20.  If not, will the waste be transported long distances out of area, which will wipe out some of the carbon benefits? Also needed will be new containers and vehicles. The government has allocated £295 million to support councils in putting plans in place.

Most councils provide households with either a 5 or 7-litre internal kitchen caddy plus a 23-litre external container. These accept all food intended for humans and pets, including inedible food parts, such as bones, shells, skins, teabags and coffee grounds. The government is still looking into the greenest options regarding caddy liners.

Councils have the choice of collecting garden waste together with food waste.

At the AD sites, biomethane will be injected into the gas grid and the producers paid a tariff.

In Wales – one of the best countries in the world for recycling rates – school trips are organised to AD facilities to teach pupils about food waste recycling. Research shows that the more knowledge people have about recycling, the more effective their recycling efforts will be.   

Let’s hope the rest of the UK will follow the Welsh example – and soon.

Compost your way to a peat-free future

The long-awaited ban on sales of peat-based compost comes into effect for home gardeners this year.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. For the professional sector, a phased approach will reduce use from December 2026 before a full ban comes into effect from 2030. This means that while some peat-containing products will be banned from shelves in 2027, others will be exempt until 2030.

The gardening charity the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) encourages gardeners to take the matter into their own hands by making their own compost, as a free, easy and sustainable alternative to shop-bought soil improvers.

Professor Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science at the RHS, says: ‘Composting is one of a handful of small changes gardeners can make on their plots to help accelerate the UK’s transition to peat-free and for people to make a positive difference to the environment and the health of their plants and planet.’

The charity Garden Organic believes that if consumers are provided with the facts they will swap their peat-based compost for homemade or peat free.

It has long campaigned for the end to peat use through its For Peat’s Sake campaign and is committed to getting the word out to as many people as possible through gardening clubs, allotment associations, garden centres and schools. To join the campaign, go to Garden Organic – Discover organic growing  The website also has guidance on making your own peat-free compost mixes.

A long story

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this year’s ban and there is still wide-spread confusion.

In 2011 an agreement was reached between the horticultural industry and the Government that the use of peat-based compost would be gradually phased out by 2020, giving manufacturers time to develop good quality peat-free alternatives.  This was a voluntary agreement, but the Government said it would legislate if this was not successful.

 The 2020 deadline was missed, so in August 2022, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) announced a ban on the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the retail horticultural sector by the end of 2024.  Consultations carried out with the public showed support for going peat free. Of 5,000 people interviewed, 95 per cent were in favour of ending peat sales to gardeners.  

Then last year the decision was taken to delay the ban for the professional sector until 2026 (with some exemptions) before the full ban in 2030. Defra said the delay was to enable professional businesses to find other suitable peat-free growing alternatives. It said a balancing act was needed between protecting precious peatlands while also acknowledging difficulties faced by the industry in making the changes.

Peat-free alternatives include organic materials such as bark, coconut fibre (coir) and bracken.

With more than 7 million people having taken up gardening since the pandemic, demand for compost is greater than ever.  The amateur sector accounts for 70 per cent of sales of peat-based compost in the UK.

Why are peatlands precious?

Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed ancient plants in the earth’s wetland eco-systems, called peatlands or peat bogs. Because it is stored under water, the organic matter doesn’t release carbon as it decays. Many of these peatlands have been growing undisturbed for thousands of years.

The UK’s peatlands store three times as much carbon as its forests, but the vast majority are in a degraded state.  Estimates suggest that only 5-10 per cent remain in near-natural condition.

For peat to remain healthy it must remain wet – extraction dries it out, sometimes triggering wildfires, and the carbon inside the bog is released as carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.    Emissions from peatlands make up over 4 per cent of all the UK’s annual greenhouse emissions – the equivalent of the carbon footprint of just under 2 million people.

With extraction, wildlife also suffers as animals lose their homes, and the local area loses a defence against flooding as healthy peatlands act as huge sponges.  

The extraction of peatlands was scaled up in the early 1960s for the horticultural industry. For decades it has been an ingredient in the majority of composts sold in British garden centres. It became popular as a fertiliser because it retains moisture and nutrients. It’s also inexpensive and easy to dig out and process into bags.

Environmentalists have long warned than digging up peatlands for use in gardens is a huge source of emissions and devastating for wildlife. The conservationist David Bellamy raised the issue of peat bog damage in the 1970s. Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tonnes of carbon. Environmental agencies say that any peat compost ban must include the importation of peat in potted plants.

Monty Don, presenter of BBC’s Gardening World, has said that using peat is ‘eco-vandalism’ and there is never any justification for using it.

When the delay to the ban was announced, Garden Organic expressed disappointment, not only at the delay but also the confusion that had been created.

Garden Organic’s chief executive Fiona Taylor said: ‘Peatlands are running out of time, and we need action now to stop the degradation of this precious eco-system just for the sake of our gardens and garden plants. Gardening should be about giving back to nature, nurturing plant diversity and soil health.’

She said the delays created a confusing marketplace for gardeners trying to do the right thing.

‘It’s good that gardeners won’t be able to buy bagged peat from 2024, but at the same time they could be buying it unwittingly via shop-bought peat-grown plug plants. ‘

Exclusions to the ban include a special dispensation for plug plants and mushrooms, which together made up 42 per cent of all peat used by professional growers in 2021.

The Wildlife Trusts have also been urging governments to enforce bans for the last 30 years. They say the burden should not be on the consumer to ensure they are not inadvertently buying peat-based products.

Research by the RHS last year showed that fewer than one in five nursery growers were peat free, but some had moved to peat-free growing in every main plant group, showing that the shift was possible for all plants.

 Despite the delays, the UK is far ahead of other countries in tackling the issue.    

The benefits of quality homemade compost are many – when added to soil, compost sequesters carbon, improves plant growth, conserves water and helps prevent nutrient runoff and soil erosion. Used as a mulch added in layers of 5cm on the top layer of soil, it suppresses weeds, improves soil structure and prevents moisture loss in hot weather.

And if you’re anything like us at Great Green Systems, composting can become a fascinating hobby too.

The book that will keep you composting

You might expect anything written about composting to be down to earth (pun intended) but if you read a lot on the subject, as we do, you’ll know that’s not always the case.

Sometimes you come away from an article thinking you must need a PhD to compost. You wonder how Mother Nature manages without the aid of a spreadsheet and calculator for tracking temperatures and working out ratios. If spreadsheets and calculators are your thing, don’t let us stop you (some of the GGS team are guilty as charged).

But most of us just want simple advice we can follow. That’s why at Great Green Systems we often point customers towards Master Composter Rod Weston’s website (carryoncomposting.com) because it offers straight-forward, practical guidance. So we were delighted to learn that Rod has turned his knowledge into a book.

The Great Green team love this book and anyone who is into composting, or could be with a little encouragement, will love it too. It gives the lowdown on just about every compost bin going so it helps you to understand your own bin better or to choose one that will work best for you.

Rod hopes the book will encourage householders to compost their organic waste ‘and most importantly, to continue composting.’ He acknowledges that people new to composting may encounter various problems while trying to master the craft, but by showing different techniques to deal with issues he hopes to help new recruits to persevere.

‘The key message is to keep composting, whatever style you adopt,’ he says. ‘All techniques can be modified to suit your own particular circumstances.’

He also hopes to encourage groups to set up small-scale community composting on allotments, at schools, and on community gardens. He points out that if garden and catering waste can be dealt with on site, the environmental costs of transporting it to a central location for processing can be avoided.

We recently paid Rod a visit at the Stokes Wood Allotment site in Leicester, which includes a demonstration site that is home to every composter you can think of. Rod demonstrates different bins and techniques to the public.  

The site provides a community composting service for allotment plot holders and also takes food waste from the café on site. Plot holders leave their waste for composting in designated spots and can take compost (and liquid feed) for their own use when it’s ready.

Working bays and bins at Stokes Wood Allotments composting demonstration site

Rod’s book also explains the idea behind the Master Composters scheme. In 2004 around 40 per cent of householders who had started home composting gave up because of a lack of knowledge. Almost two decades later, councils and others now produce information and train Master Composters to provide support. This has resulted in a reduction in the dropout rate to between 8 and 14 per cent. In more recent years this has reduced again to 3.9 per cent. Obviously the scheme has been a great success.

Like many of his generation, as a child Rod helped his father on his allotment ‘in the days when allotments were an important piece of ground that played a major role in providing fruit and vegetables for the family’.  

Before becoming interested in the environmental aspects of composting, Rod initially composted on his own allotment in order to dispose of garden waste and to use the compost produced as a soil improver. He says it was his wife who first became interested in becoming a Master Composter ‘but then suggested it to me because she thought it would keep me off the streets!’

On our visit we loved talking to Rod about all aspects of composting. It’s so refreshing in this world of uncompromising opinions to hear his relaxed straight-forward views. Like us he’s pleasantly obsessed but not a purist. Rod’s attitude is that we can all compost – you just have to find a system and bin that works for you.  The more people who compost the better it is for all of us and for the planet.

Anyone living in or around Leicester is lucky to have easy access to his talks and demonstrations.

‘If you are interested and want to get involved with your bin, go for hot composting. If you’re lazy or too busy, just go for a cold system,’ he says.

He goes about the business of promoting composting in a practical, fun way, giving talks to garden clubs, allotment societies and schools.  For school visits, when talking about wormeries he takes along some slugs and snails as well as worms, knowing his audience will approve.

Other props are a soft toy rat and dog poo (spoiler alert – it’s fake) which is used to explain the workings of a wormery used for dog poo.

Sitting pretty – on the dog poo wormery

He thinks composting will become more popular as more local authority food waste collections come into operation, since a lot of people could prefer to compost their food waste in their gardens rather than having it waiting for collection by the council.

Rod is a fan of the Green Johanna and has a couple at home as well as one on the site.

‘It just sits there quietly and gets on with its job, breaking stuff down, with no trouble,’  he says approvingly.

Rod told us that badgers from a nearby wood had recently made a nocturnal visit and tried to get into the site’s Green Johanna, but failed.

We inspected the teeth marks on the Johanna’s lid and Insulating Jacket, proud that the Johanna had stood firm. And this Johanna is 13 years old.

Rod shows Mark evidence of the failed badger attack

The site also demonstrates an old Green Cone, which Rod says has never needed emptying or cleaning.

Apparently the number one problem with Green Cones that people ask him about is caused by the owner not having read the instruction manual properly. The manual states that food waste should never come higher than the top of the Cone’s underground basket, so there should never be food waste inside the Cone itself, which is above ground level.  Rod said he has seen Cones that have been filled right to the top like a composter, which would not be a great problem to have to sort out.

How a Green Cone should work – with food waste only in the underground basket

We appreciated this insight and we intend to make this point much clearer in the next edition of the Green Cone manual so that no one can possibly miss it. Although it’s obviously not much good if people don’t read the manual.

In his book, Rod says: ‘There are almost as many ways of composting as there are composters and, despite what might be read online, there is no single right way of doing anything. If what you are doing works, it must be right for you, although, of course, the method may be open to improvement. The main thing is to enjoy your composting in the knowledge that, while you are improving your soil to produce better crops, you are also, in a small way, helping to save the planet. ‘

Wise words from a Master (Composter).

Keeping compost warm when temperatures drop

Hot composting is basically a set of techniques. By following these techniques you can achieve higher temperatures and faster decomposition than traditional regular composting, which is usually referred to as cold composting.

If you want the simplest way to achieve higher temperatures, then using a well-designed unit such as the Green Johanna, along with its Insulating Jacket, is your best bet. We have many customers who hot compost without the jacket, but they tend to be experienced composters who want active involvement in managing the bin.  

Some members of the Great Green Systems team keep the Johanna’s jacket on virtually all year round, removing it in the summer during hot weather when the compost temperature approaches 70 degrees Celsius.

 We recommend that in winter if external temperatures fall lower than 5 degrees Celsius the jacket should be added to avoid the composting process stalling.  

The jacket gives you more control. As well as helping to raise the temperature, you also have the option of removing it in order to lower the temperature if it gets too hot. Temperatures above 70 degrees will become too hot for the composting creatures to survive. If these aerobic micro-organisms start to die off, the process could stall so the jacket should be removed to allow the bin to cool down.

A Great Green Systems Johanna and jacket in January this year when the ground temperature was at zero, below.

But inside the Johanna the compost kept warm at 40 degrees C.

Some customers have expressed concerns that the Insulating Jacket will make the Johanna too hot for worms; this is not a problem because worms can easily enter and leave the composter through the small holes in the base plate. At temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius they will move where it is cooler, usually the bottom of the bin where the compost is maturing, or they can leave the bin completely.

A good fit

The Insulating Jacket is made from polyethylene and comprises three ring sections and a lid piece. When fitting the jacket, it’s essential that the bottom section does not cover the vents at the sides of the Johanna’s base as these are necessary for airflow.

The two upper sections should be added so that they overlap the section below by about 5 cms, ensuring that the ventilation holes at the top of the composter remain uncovered.  The jacket fits snugly so that no cold draughts can get in between the jacket and the bin.

 Composting outcomes depend on various factors and that includes the composter’s level of interest and involvement. Of course, as keen composters ourselves we are bound to say it’s a fascinating subject that can become an enjoyable hobby, but don’t just take our word for it.

Adam Johannes, also known to his customers and followers as Compost Guy, says he really enjoys the active hands-on involvement of aerating his Johanna. Anthea Rossouw, who has been teaching composting using Johannas for decades, both in this country and in South Africa, says she loves to see people who started out knowing nothing becoming evangelical about their new interest. A new customer who took up composting recently on retirement admits cheerfully that she has become ‘obsessed’.

We hear so many different stories depending on various locations covering the length and breadth of the country, whether that is in sheltered inland areas, wind-battered coastal regions, rural or urban, and indeed countries abroad too.

Even with the jacket added, don’t forget your good composting habits:

  • Feed regularly
  • Balance carbon/nitrogen ratios
  • Aerate regularly
  • Chop items small
  • Check moisture levels

And remember the Johanna was designed in Sweden to withstand temperatures of -20 degrees C. So wherever you are, with the jacket on, your Johanna is good to go this winter.  

Which creature is most essential for life on earth?

Some years ago my toddler son was out jumping in puddles in his little red wellies, when I noticed some worms. I pointed them out to him and was completely horrified by what he did next – he raised a booted foot in order to smack it down on a worm.

I don’t know why he was so freaked out. Had he never noticed them before? Were they so different to cute animals – without faces or fur – that he found them scary? Obviously I stopped him and told him how wonderful they were.

Children are fascinated by worms but it’s not always a given that they love them. One of our young worm farmer friends, aged 8, said some children in his school were mean to worms when they encountered them.

Worms could do with an image makeover that sees them recognised as eco-superheroes – and now is the time with tomorrow (October 21) being World Earthworm Day.

It’s wonderful that these under-appreciated creatures get their own day, although those of us who compost think every day is earthworm day.  

The day commemorates the publication in October 1881 of Charles Darwin’s book The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Actions of Worms, which changed how worms were viewed.

Of all the creatures that Darwin studied, earthworms were the ones that interested him the most; he spent 40 years studying them.  His studies and experiments attracted the mockery of other scientists because worms were considered pests at the time, but Darwin was convinced there was something special about them. He tested their eyesight and hearing, concluding that they were blind and deaf but could detect vibrations.

Feeding worms showed him they liked celery, cherries and carrots but not sage, mint and thyme. He found that they also eat stones to grind up leaves in their stomachs as they have no teeth.

It became something of an obsession with him. At times he doubted himself and wondered if he was being foolish. People who admired Darwin for his previous work couldn’t believe that he was devoting so much time to such an ‘insignificant’ creature. But Darwin believed that the apparently insignificant can be the foundation of something much greater. As we know, his dedication paid off.
An illustrated children’s book on this subject was published earlier this year – Darwin’s Super-Pooping Worm Spectacular by Polly Owen.  It tells the fascinating story of how Darwin came to conclude that the humble earthworm was the most important species on the planet. For a long time he didn’t find evidence to back up his belief that worms were special, until one day when he discovered their superpower, one that sustains life on earth. We won’t spoil the story!

The Great Green Systems team loves this book and so too do our young worm farming friends, Reggie and Magdalena, shown here reading it.

 Reviews by parents and grandparents who have read it with their children and grandchildren show that adults can learn from it too. Several reviewers say every classroom should have a copy as it’s an ideal subject for primary school science.

As well as introducing children to Darwin and the ways that scientists make deductions, it’s also an inspiring story about the triumph of a person who ignored mockery to persevere with something he believed in.

BBC Wildlife called the book ‘a disarmingly silly read that manages to share cool worm science with a light and easy touch.’

From saint to sinner and back again – worms’ changing reputation

Past

 The fact that worms are vital to soil health – and therefore to us – was well known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Cleopatra decreed that the earthworm should be protected as a sacred animal as it was believed that harming worms or removing them from the land would affect the fertility of the soil. But this wisdom somehow got lost and by Darwin’s time worms had fallen out of favour and were thought to be pests that killed plants, damaged the soil and made a mess of gardens.  

Present

We know that worms aerate and improve the soil, providing nutrients for plants to flourish. Without them the earth would become cold, hard and sterile.

The few centimetres of soil beneath our feet have typically been the least studied place on earth but today scientists all over the world are following Darwin’s example. The simple act of introducing worms to degraded soil in poor regions of the world has been shown to increase plant yields by 280%.

Gardeners know that vermicompost (compost produced by worms) is ‘black gold’ – the best quality soil food.

Future

 Despite our knowledge about how dependent we are on earthworms, the species is in danger from humans. Chemicals sprayed on plants by gardeners and farmers cause them harm and artificial grass is also a danger as they become trapped below it.  

But there’s a lot we can do to help them. In our gardens, parks and allotments we can compost and create log piles. We can also use ecological gardening methods which don’t rely on chemicals.

To learn more about worms and how to help them, join The Earthworm Society – www.earthwormsoc.org.uk.  

Let’s spread the word about worms at home and in schools so that never again will a child try to stamp on one or be mean to one. Like my son, Magdalena used to be scared of worms when her family first got a worm farm but several months later here she is confidently checking they’ve got enough to eat.

It’s appropriate that Darwin should get the last word.

After his long years of study, he concluded: ‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly, organised creatures.’

Julie

What do you do with used cooking oil?

If you are among the 48 per cent of the population that pours fats down the sink or drain, then please read on.

Even if you flush fats away with hot water and washing up liquid they do not magically disappear. Fairy liquid does not contain fairies. Instead, fats, oils and grease bind with other objects that should never have been flushed away, creating huge fatbergs that block sewers.  

Fatbergs are giant congealed grease balls that are formed when fat attaches to sewer walls, slowly accumulating items such as wet wipes and nappies that have no place in sewers. These fat balls get bigger and bigger and set as hard as concrete.

 You may recall the famous Whitechapel fatberg that became news in 2017 – it was longer than two Wembley football pitches and weighed the same as 11 double-decker buses.

And yet thousands of tonnes of oil continue to flow into our sewers each year, causing hundreds of thousands of sewer blockages and sewage flooding to thousands of properties.

The damage costs £90 million in repairs and is totally avoidable.

Unless you are eating your breakfast right now, let’s spare a thought for those who have encountered sewage backflow (3,000 homes a year). Having poo flowing through your house must be an experience you would not forget in a hurry.

It’s not a nice subject to talk about but talk about it we must because education is vital. Many people are not aware that even small amounts of food substances, such as crumbs, butter, margarine, lard, cooking sauce, should never go down the drain. It’s not always obvious – I admit that until researching this article I didn’t know that milk was fatty enough to contribute to a blockage.

Watch what goes down the sink

We also need to spread the word about what a great resource used cooking oil is. Did you know there are facilities at hundreds of household recycling centres across the country for the collection of used cooking oil? The collected oil is refined into a biofuel to create green electricity. Check whether your local site has such a facility and if not ask the local councillors responsible for recycling to look into providing one.  

 Our family has been recycling our used cooking oil this way since 2010 when I read in the local press about a collection facility at my nearest recycling site, but I’m surprised more people don’t know about it.   The oil is collected by vehicles converted to run on the same biofuel and taken to purpose-made generators. Once refined, the biofuel has huge potential – one litre generates enough clean electricity to make 240 cups of tea, while one tonne can provide enough to power the average home for a year.

I used to pour the used oil into various bottles and containers but this was quite messy and I just had to hope the filled containers wouldn’t fall over in the car on the way to the site. Life became easier when we got purpose-built containers that enable us to safely store the oil until the next trip to the recycling centre. Read more

Pouring used cooking oil into the container to store

Carrying oil safely in the car

Adding the oil to the collection facility at the local household recycling centre

To return to fatbergs – which I know you want to – you may already be aware that you should never flush wet wipes, but many people do just that. Most wet wipes are over 90 per cent plastic, which is almost as bad as putting a plastic bag down the loo. Wet wipes account for more than 90 per cent of material in fatbergs and in the UK we use 11 billion of them each year.

As well as wet wipes, putting other items in drains that contain hidden plastics, such as facemasks, nappies, period products and cotton buds, contributes to the millions of pieces of plastic that end up in rivers and seas every day, causing huge damage to wildlife and the environment.  

Other items that get flushed into our sewers include contact lenses, condoms, plasters, bandages, razor blades, disposable gloves and dental floss.

Plastic in our oceans breaks down into microplastics, which poison the ocean ecosystem, and when plastic in the water does eventually break down from exposure to the sun, it releases greenhouse gases in the form of methane and ethylene.

If you are appalled by these facts you might want to join this month’s Unblocktober campaign. This is an annual month-long drive to inform people how they can help to save the sewers and seas.   

A few years ago when I worked in a primary school we enjoyed an educational visit by staff from Yorkshire Water who talked to the children (who would no doubt go on to inform their parents and grandparents) about what can and can’t be flushed. The children were fascinated by an activity which involved adding different types of paper or wipes to water to see which were the best at dissolving efficiently. For a free-flowing sewerage system you obviously want any paper to dissolve quickly. Toilet paper dissolved in seconds, but not facial tissues, and so-called flushable wipes were extremely resistant to disintegration. Many wipes are incorrectly labelled as flushable.

Monster fatbergs are created by millions of people thinking their own little addition of oil or single wet wipe will not make a difference. At the heart of recycling is the opposite belief – that each individual action does matter. It matters a lot.

Unblocktober began in 2019 and by last year 66,000 people had signed up to get informed and change their kitchen and bathroom habits. Let’s hope even more sign up this year.

For information, tips and advice see Unblocktober | A month to Save Our Sewers and Seas

Julie

Spare Parts