Dos and Don’ts of recycling

You may be a keen recycler but are you as green as you think?

For example, do you wash out yogurt pots or do you believe that dirty items will be washed as part of the recycling process?  Do you think grease on cardboard takeaway containers doesn’t count?

Recycling can be a subject that causes arguments in households, with everybody thinking they know the right rules.

Yet people who recycle wrongly cause tonnes of recyclable items to be rejected and incinerated, costing councils £48m a year.  

The recycling industry has a name for people who have the right motivation but the wrong methods – ‘wishcyclers’.

Wishcyclers feel so guilty about waste that if in doubt they put items in the recycling and hope for the best. They rarely seek advice or keep up with changes in policy so they’re unaware when they get it wrong.  

The most common contaminant is food in unwashed containers and crusts left in pizza boxes. At recycling centres loads are sorted and checked for sources of contamination. Even small amounts of leftover food (including grease on takeaway containers) and liquid make other items in the collected recycling dirty and can damage or clog the sorting machinery.

According to a report in The Sunday Times,  a used teabag in a bag of paper would count as low contamination and depending on the facility would get removed by hand or machine, but if the contamination is high – lots of food waste , wet paper, used nappies – then the whole bag and possibly other bags in the same lorry will be incinerated.  

The costs are disastrous for local councils – not only do they bear the cost of incinerating the waste but they are also losing out on money they could have earned from selling the recyclable materials. 

Do the right thing – separate recycling bins in a UK service station

In 2019/20, 525,000 tonnes of household recycling collected by councils was rejected at the point of sorting, according to the Local Government Association.  Each tonne from a household bin that cannot be recycled costs an extra £93 to incinerate, amounting to £48m a year.

Foods or liquids can contaminate other recyclables. If bottles contain liquid they may be deemed too heavy by the automatic sorting process and rejected.

Other items mistakenly put in recycling bins include clingfilm, plastic wrapping, nappies, wet wipes,  used tissues, kitchen towel and foil.  

The best kind of street heart

Our main photo shows a wonderful idea that we came across on the streets of Simantra in Chalkidiki, Greece, to inspire residents to recycle plastic bottle lids.  

The heart-shaped containers accept donated lids, which are amassed to raise funds to buy wheelchairs for people who can’t afford them. It’s a fantastic practical idea that looks good too, and you can just imagine that children love popping their lids into the container.   

The local council started collecting the lids years ago, but people used to save them at home in bags until someone had the brainwave of the heart-shaped containers out on the streets. This obviously makes it easier for collection as well as motivation.  

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It’s in all our interests to recycle better. Check out these Dos and Don’ts of Recycling:

DO

  • Check out the Recycle Now website by typing in your postcode and tracking what can and can’t be recycled locally – www.recyclenow.com.
  • Ask staff at your local recycling centre for information if you’re still not sure what can go where – don’t guess.  Currently there are regional variations in what can be accepted for recycling.   
  • Rinse out plastic bottles, squash them and put the lids back on – this means they take up less space in bins, in the lorry and at the recycling centre.
  • Add envelopes with plastic windows – the windows aren’t recyclable but the sorting system at the recycling centre can extract them.
  • Rinse out tins to get rid of food residue – use your washing up water to do this.
  • Check out what recycling options supermarkets offer – large stores are keen to offer recycling services because that’s what their customers want. It makes sense because people will go to a certain supermarket because of this.  Our local Tesco is a magnet for recyclers, with containers collecting soft plastics and other items.

Soft plastics recycling at Tesco

  • If you have more plastic bags than you can possibly reuse, recycle them at supermarket drop-offs.
  • Use refills where you can. Many companies offer refill options for appropriate products, such as Abel and Cole’s Club Zero refillable options. You return the original container and store the produce at home in a container of your own.  They also collect hard-to-recycle plastics and transform them into sustainable building materials.
  • Repurpose containers – the plastic containers that your shop-bought fruit or veg comes in can be used for planting seedlings in.  
  • Use charity shops – as a donor and customer. Charity shops keep 339,000 tonnes of textiles a year out of landfill. Buying second-hand clothes also encourages you to be creative and customise clothes in a way you might not if you’ve spent more. Eco-influencer Nancy Birtwhistle has a recipe for odour neutraliser for second-hand clothes and furniture. And it’s not just clothes that are second-hand bargains. You can also make some money if you’re savvy; I heard that a customer who bought pottery items from my local Oxfam resold them for £1,000.
  • Check out freecycle.org and ilovefreegle.org. These are brilliant way of donating – and finding – a huge variety of things based on the philosophy that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.  They are non-profit, free organisations that link you with people in your area who need things or want to get rid of them, keeping good stuff out of landfill.
  • Check out vintage furniture – Buying second-hand furniture is not only the planet-friendly choice but the stylish one too these days as more and more people appreciate the character and workmanship in vintage furniture. Pieces from the 60s and 70s are currently in demand as people scour eBay for items such as smoked-glass tables or boucle chairs that they remember from their childhood. If trawling round antiques markets and reclamation yards isn’t for you, check out websites such as vinteriors.co.uk, selency.co.uk, or the Narchie shopping app.
  • Upcycle furniture with a lick of paint. If you use chalk paint you don’t need to sand it down first. We love Lakeland paints (lakelandpaints.co.uk) which are organic and chemical free and, we can confirm, odourless. There are also recipes online if you want to try making your own.
  • Transform pallets into planters, garden furniture, bug hotels and seed trays. You can ask at a local builders’ merchants or ask permission to take them if someone is throwing them out in a skip.
  • Check notices at your recycling centre – our local bottle banks changed recently, with glass of all colours now accepted in each container rather than having to be separated out.  When I asked staff at the site after reading a notice about this, I was told that new machinery can separate out the different colours.
  • Learn more locally –with the Horizon app (horizonapp.uk). By scanning barcodes you can  learn how to recycle packaging in your area.   
  • Look up The Recycled Candle Company, which makes all its hand-made candles from scrap wax, saving more than 40 tonnes of wax from landfill every year. They extract the wax from the containers so the containers can be recycled. They have collection points for consumers to drop off used candles in churches, libraries and gift shops.

DON’T

  • Don’t use charity shops as dumping grounds for your rubbish that you can’t be bothered to sort through yourself.  Anything donated should be clean, undamaged and in good condition. Poor quality leftover clothes are commonly exported overseas and the local textile economies are swamped by European cast-offs. Artisan traders buy bags of castoffs hoping to repair and upcycle items for resale, but increasingly poor quality means it’s harder and harder for them to make a profit. So the clothes end up as waste and are dumped or washed out to sea. Remember the first rule of the ‘buyerarchy’ is Refuse – as in refuse to keep consuming.
  • Don’t throw away pots and tubs with the film still on, it can’t be recycled.
  • Don’t try to recycle pyrex dishes and drinking glasses – they are chemically heat treated to stop them melting at the same temperature as other glass.
  • Don’t put corks in recycling without checking first. They can be recycled at some recycling points – check at www.recyclenow.com. You can home compost them or use as mulch on plants, chopped into small pieces. Alternatively send them to cork recycling schemes such as Recorked UK, who resell them and donate a percentage of profits to charities – recorkeduk.org
  • Don’t rely on clingfilm – instead use reusable, washable beeswax food wraps.
  • Don’t try to recycle containers from scented candles if they still contain some wax – scrape off the residual wax.  

On the subject of candles, try to buy them from renewable sources, such as soy-based or beeswax candles. Cheaper candles are made from paraffin wax, which is derived from petroleum by-products. Paraffin burns quickly as it has a higher melt point whereas a high-quality wax burns more slowly.

Julie

When did we start wasting food?

 Not very long ago the notion of wasting food was unheard of.

Let’s imagine the UK a hundred years ago – how much food would you think the average family was throwing away in the 1920s? Not so much, probably.

Yet recent research on food waste shows that:

  • 70 per cent of food waste in the UK happens at home.
  • 85 per cent of people say their food bills have increased yet they are still wasting food.
  • Twenty per cent of people questioned said they struggled to know where to find a recipe for their leftovers.

Food waste is in focus during Food Waste Action Week (March 18-24) with more grim statistics but also advice on how to cut waste at home.

How did it come to this?

My grandmother was born in 1901. The poverty of her life was evident in the form of rickets – the result of childhood malnutrition. My mother, a war baby, also grew up in poverty and was no stranger to hunger. Lack of money meant making meals out of anything and wasting nothing.

Fast forward to my childhood in the 60s and 70s, which, thankfully, never featured hunger. Meals were simple homemade British dishes that women had learnt in the home as they were growing up. These dishes didn’t involve recipe books or ingredients you might struggle to buy, such as liquid glucose or star anise.  Stews and pies were staples, with little red meat. Egg and chips were a perfectly acceptable meal.

 Somehow over the last 50 years many of us lost touch with the kind of resourceful home cooking that had been handed down over generations. What happened?

Perhaps under the influence of TV (and advertising) we started to feel that shepherd’s pie wasn’t good enough and we should be serving something more sophisticated and aspirational, something that mum and gran had never cooked?

 At some stage it seems we all bought into the idea that foreign was better. Now, I love Indian and Italian food as much as the next person but that does not mean that stew and dumplings are inferior.  I remember my auntie, in her eighties, telling me there was something she had always wanted to try. Her tone suggested something daring, and I was mentally preparing a risk assessment to take her white water rafting or bungee jumping, until she said shyly, ‘Pasta’. She was one of the best cooks I’ve ever known, but somehow she felt this Italian substance was exotic and out of her league.

My mother always loved cooking and learnt from her own mother to use up every scrap of food. Today we would think these women were great role models; they’d be designing food waste reduction apps for multi-national companies.

If I’d had any sense, I would have learned a lot from her. Unfortunately, I was a bolshy know-all teenager (is there any other kind?) taken in by the educational rebranding of cookery in the 70s and 80s as Domestic Science. As a science it was something you could get wrong and fail. I thought my mum couldn’t possibly know as much as the teachers. Sure, what my mum made tasted good, but it was just basic low-level cooking that kept people alive, whereas this was an O-level.

 Part of our task in Domestic Science was to balance colour and texture. You would be given a scenario to cook a menu for and you’d be marked down if there was too much of one colour or texture.

My mum took a keen interest and would make her own menu suggestions, and I would roll my eyes and inform her that, No, obviously you couldn’t have apple pie as a dessert because you’d already had pastry in chicken pie for the main. Obviously you couldn’t have two lots of pastry – it’s the same colour and texture.

My mother would argue that it made sense to use up the pastry remains from the chicken pie as a topping for the dessert and to also cook it at the same time while you’d got the oven on. That would mean no waste and less expense.  And I would retort, Fine and if I do that I’ll fail!  And my mother would shake her head in disbelief as if the world had gone to hell in a handcart.

(At this point I would like to add that in 20 years of child-rearing, at no time did any child complain that a meal was too brown or too crumbly.)

 My mother was a working mother, but in those days there was no school run (children walked with other children) no after-school activities and no parents’ evenings/school meetings to erode parents’ time.  The pace of life now means we don’t plan meals, even though just 10 minutes a week doing this would save time and money in the long run.

Take time to plan

But how to choose what to make? For decades we’ve been overwhelmed by thousands of recipes from celebrity chefs using ingredients you had to buy in specially. In many cases this leads to one-attempt meals, leaving ingredients never to be used again.

 Somewhere along the way we became so comfortable with wasting food that one third of all food that is produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted, contributing as much as 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

 Why do we waste so much?

One problem is lack of knowledge of the damage that food waste does to the environment. Research shows that only 30 per cent of people understand the harm caused to the planet. First there is the cost in terms of production and transport, then there is the cost in terms of waste.

 Food waste has typically been incinerated or buried in landfill along with residual waste and left to rot anaerobically, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste is still disposed of this way in almost 50 per cent of councils in England who have yet to implement separate food waste collections. This means that currently in the UK, millions of tonnes of food waste still go into landfill. For every tonne of that, there are over 600kg of carbon equivalent emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide. The home composting of organic waste avoids this fate, of course, which is why so many people choose to do it.

I know that I’ve not been organised enough in the past. Now that I’m more aware, I can’t bear to throw any scrap of food away, even though all our food waste is composted in the Green Johanna or Compost Tumbler.

Unavoidable food waste goes in the bokashi bin and composters

The internet is of course a treasure trove of tips and recipes – you can learn a huge amount from eco-influencers. If you saw Jen Gale on The One Show (along with her Green Johanna compost bin), like me you may have been impressed on seeing that her fridge contains little notes telling the family which items need using up first.  

Easy wins to waste less are:

  • Plan menus for the week
  • Save leftovers and use apps (such as Kitche) for flexible recipes
  • Batch cook and freeze some for later.

  And yes, before you ask, I am finally listening to my mum.

Julie

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.

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

Golden rules for having a clear-out

Returning from holiday can be hard – and not for the obvious reasons.

 Last year I was fed up when we came back from the Lake District, and it wasn’t just the fact that I could no longer see Lake Windermere from the bedroom window. It was also because I missed the neat tidy air of the holiday cottage we’d stayed in. It was so serene and uncluttered. If I put a book down on the coffee table, I would still be able to find it the next day because it wouldn’t have been submerged under papers, junk mail and post-it notes.

Simplicity and peace reigned in that little cottage. I felt as though a loudspeaker had been turned off in my head and I could hear properly for the first time. And what I could hear was the voice of Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying) saying, ‘Does all that stuff in your house really spark joy?’

Because if it doesn’t, you’re meant to allow it to pass on to spark joy in someone else’s. A great recycling manifesto.

So that’s why I launched the very first Awesome August Clear-Out in our house (a designated annual event). I chose August because I’d just come back from holiday but of course it can be any time. Any school holiday is good if you have children at home.

Like many people we worked from home during the pandemic lockdowns and despite officially going back to the office many moons ago, not everything seems to have made it back there. In many ways the house is still a home-office hybrid. Remember those days when every surface had to multitask? You’d wonder why the hairdryer wasn’t working only to realise you’d picked up the stapler instead. And vice versa. Our house hadn’t fully recovered from that and it needed to because I wanted that holiday cottage vibe. I wanted to open a cupboard and immediately find what I was looking for. I’ll never be the mad-clean type who whisks away an innocent person’s half-drunk cup of tea before they’ve finished, but I do crave clear surfaces and curated shelving. If you’re there already, I salute you. Move along, people, there’s nothing for you to see here.  

For the rest of you, here’s why you too could benefit from an Awesome Clear-Out.

  • Coming back from holiday usually means you’re motivated by how pleasant it was to live a simpler life for a week or two. This was because you weren’t surrounded by stuff. We can’t all decide to renovate our homes, but we can make it easier to find things.  
  • The summer is a good time if you are among the thousands who have a long holiday. School staff, pupils, students – you know who you are. The mild weather means you can dump all your stuff outside to sort through it all, like they do in the TV decluttering shows.
  •  One message that comes through loud and clear from the TV shows is that many parents can’t let go of their children’s childhoods. Guilty as charged. But I’ve now reduced the piles of memorabilia to one box per child. Parents, stop the insanity. I hate to be harsh, but – it’s gone. Children are often fine with moving on. It’s you who’ll be clinging to a tatty rag, wailing, ‘But we can’t let go of Goosey!’
  • Will you really read those books again? During the first Clear-Out I asked myself that question and realised I would have to live to about 140 to read not only all the books waiting silently to be read, but also those I intended to re-read.  There is only one book I’ve ever read twice – To Kill a Mockingbird. So the evidence points to my not being one of life’s re-readers. Accepting this meant I could let go of dozens of books. Now when I pass my Agatha Christies on to friends and they say they’ll return them, I’ve learnt to say, No, it’s OK, I know who did it.
  • My mother is a great fan of Death Cleaning – this is the Swedish custom of sorting through your lifetime’s possessions before you die, so sparing your loved ones the task later. It’s become her favourite hobby. Most people might visit their 80-something mothers and find them weeding, knitting or watching Bargain Hunt. Mine is to be found among piles of crockery, Tupperware and spare lawn mower parts. She death-cleans with such gusto that I suspect if she’d heard of it years ago she might never have accumulated anything in the first place.  ‘I’m doing this so you don’t have to,’ she says. But recently I’ve noticed what seems to be happening is she’s passing things on to me so I’ll make the decisions about what to keep and discard. What she means is – ‘I’m letting you do this now so you don’t have to later.’ But I don’t mind. I’ve seen friends struggle to cope with these heartbreaking clear-outs after their parents have passed away. Now feels like the better time. My husband used to say things like, ‘We appear to have a large bag full of your mother’s retirement cards in the garage.’ Now he accepts it too. Her stuff has been annexed into our clear-out.  
  • According to Jen Gale in The Sustainable-ish Living Guide, once you’ve gone through the hassle of decluttering you become far more selective about what you bring into the house that might need decluttering again down the line. Once you start this process it becomes easier to live by the ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ eco mantra.
  • Try this hardcore technique showcased by the Minimalists: Pretend you’re moving and pack up all your stuff into cardboard boxes. Label them so you know what’s in each one and then store them in a room in your house. When you need something over the next month, go and get it out and find a home for it. The theory is that anything left at the end of month isn’t something you use much and can be eradicated from your home.
  • When it’s time to get rid of documents such as bills, receipts, statements and personal letters, it can be a big but satisfying job. Some people burn them after shredding or dunk them in water, but the most eco-friendly method is to compost them. Paper is rich in carbon, which provides balance with materials rich in nitrogen, such as food waste. Avoid composting any paper that might contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as glossy paper. You can cut down on the volume by only tearing out the parts that contain sensitive data. Many letters contain a lot of standard official jargon with no personal references. These parts could simply be added to your recycling bin.

 A compost bin is the safest of all bins for personal papers. As one of our customers said, ‘Good luck to anyone who wants to go rummaging through my Green Johanna!’  

The golden rules of clear-outs

  • The number one rule is this – respect what’s important to other people. For me this means accepting that to certain family members thousands of West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and St Helens RL programmes have the historic value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also means my husband will never again try to throw out the battered flight bag that is priceless to me because my Auntie Margaret bought it for me when I ‘went away’ to university. I actually only crossed the Pennines but I was leaving Yorkshire so…
  • Do not be fooled into thinking this is merely a physical exercise. This is a mental, emotional, and, yes, spiritual (if that’s the way you roll) activity. We are letting go in all senses of the word. If, like me, you are a fan of shows about hoarders, you’ll know that hoarding is thought to be psychological in origin, apparently related to feelings of loss. But don’t let this put you off. Take it slowly and gently, one room or even cupboard at a time and get a sympathetic (but not too sympathetic) friend or relative to help. Plan some treats, like taking a coffee break in a cafe. Go for the easiest room to tackle first – the bathroom.
  • Don’t leave the house while a clear-out is taking place.   My cousin managed to get her husband to clear out their garage. But then she went out, while he got busy taking all the ‘junk’ to the tip, along with a lifetime’s accumulation of precious Christmas decorations.  I know. It makes no sense, what was he thinking? Childhood ends but Christmas is for life.
  • Children are often motivated by the kind idea of giving something away so another child can enjoy it – but don’t force this spirit of philanthropy.  When the great comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) died earlier this year I read that he blamed his bibliomania on the time he returned from school as a boy to find that his mother had given away all his precious books to the Salvation Army. Her argument was that he had already read them. To compensate for this loss he went on to collect 30,000 books over his lifetime. So encourage but don’t push too hard – it could backfire.  
  • There are wonderful schemes to redistribute books to children who have none of their own.  Abel and Cole’s organic delivery service runs a Give Back with Books scheme working with the Children’s Book Project.

Give Back With Books

Passing your things on:

  • Charity shops are always crying out for donations of decent quality – that means clean and undamaged goods with no missing parts.

 If we give them things they can’t sell, all we’re doing is passing the work of sorting it out on to someone else. Check with charity shops as to what they accept – most won’t take electrical items as they need PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing) to ensure they are safe to use. Many shops also won’t accept car seats, bike helmets, medical appliances and safety devices.

  • Check out freecycle.org and ilovefreegle.org.

Acknowledge that your family’s needs change as your lives change. The small second-hand dining table that had served my family as our children were growing up was no longer adequate when our sons grew up and got partners, meaning a bigger family table was needed. I put the old one on freegle along with the five small Ikea chairs that had served us for years. The young mum who came for them was overjoyed. I felt delighted, if a little nostalgic for times past, at the thought that her children would now be eating and crafting at that table just as my sons had done. Time to move on.

  • Don’t forget to donate – and shop – at church fairs. There are some interesting and unusual donations depending on the lives lived by parishioners. On our book stall a few years ago an elderly lady asked if we had any Nietzsche. I don’t know what surprised me most – the request or the fact that I was able to say yes, we did indeed have some Nietzsche, and not just one but two! Waterstones, eat your heart out.

Job done. Now when Recycling Week comes round you can sit back and polish your green halo.

Julie

Sustainable dressing for a Big Fat Greek Wedding

When my son and his girlfriend announced they were getting married, it didn’t take long for idle speculation about what I would wear to become a problem that did my head in.

I don’t buy that many new clothes these days and try to make sustainable choices when I do.

According to consulting firm McKinsey and the World Economic Forum, clothing production has at least doubled since 2000, while the average garment is kept for half as long.

 I ran through a sustainable hierarchy for an outfit:

  • Wear something I already have
  • Borrow
  • Rent
  • Buy new from an ethical company.

I’ve read that Greta Thunberg never buys new clothes, borrowing instead from friends for special events. This option works if you’re young, slim and pretty, but most of us have more complex needs.

So began my mission to find a big fat green Greek wedding outfit.

The first option was out because I don’t already own an outfit that’s special enough for a wedding. I know it might surprise some readers to learn that, as someone who writes about compost, I don’t have a wardrobe full of glamorous gowns for red-carpet events. (Perhaps the composting world is indeed full of such events but I just don’t get invited to them.)

My dressiest dress is black so that’s not an option.  Yes, I know that black may well be a very modern stylish choice in some circles, but there is a complication here in that the bride is Greek and the wedding will take place in her home village. I don’t yet know her family and any cultural or religious traditions that may need to be taken into consideration. So I’m wary of committing some cross-cultural faux pas that could possibly echo down the ages, with me being forever referred to as ‘her who wore black to her son’s wedding.’

I looked into renting and also considered my favourite sustainable retailers. I sent off for a beautiful floaty dress from one company but returned it when my husband said I looked like I was wearing a nightie.

Being the mother of the groom, or MOG to use the official industry term (mother of the bride being the MOB), is obviously a big deal. And I can’t be the only MOG/MOB who feels pressured into becoming someone I’m not. (At this point, let me say that if you get irritated by first-world problems you should stop reading now, if you haven’t already.)

In pursuit of an outfit that ticked a long list of boxes, I must have looked at hundreds of outfits over several months. None of them were right. I thought of a friend who spends her life in trousers and loafers but went to her daughter’s wedding in a stiff dress-suit and heels that made her look and feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want that. But there is a kind of blackmail attached to weddings – you have to look as though you’ve made a big effort in order to show that you love the couple. Don’t ask me how it works. But it’s there, this equation between bling and love. Is it the class system, the fashion industry, media pressure? I don’t know. But it’s there, this pressure to adopt a wedding uniform and leave your personality at the door. For some reason we feel funnelled into becoming Joan Collins when we might be more Whoopi Goldberg.

From my experience I can report that most designers assume you have the tall, super-slender figure of the Princess of Wales and that you require the kind of stately dress-coats favoured by members of the royal family at coronations.  

As the days became weeks, I started to lose all perspective and reason – it was like getting the new kitchen all over again.  A sign of how desperate I became is that I asked my husband’s opinion. This is something I usually avoid because I know what I will get. He will say, ‘What are you asking me for? I’m not an expert.’ He will then name an expert in the said field to emphasise just how far away from that person he is and therefore how spectacularly unqualified to offer an opinion.  Depending on the topic in question, I will be informed that he is not Jeremy Clarkson, Gordon Ramsay, David Bailey or Monty Don. In this particular case I was told he is not Gok Wan.

And yet, despite very obviously not being Gok Wan, he managed to weigh in with what sounded suspiciously like opinions.  Apart from the ‘nightie’, other dresses were dismissed as: too boring, too loud, too much, too frumpy and ‘something my nan would have worn’.  Inevitably, when I questioned his verdicts, he complained that he got in trouble for not giving an opinion and in trouble if he did.

‘I don’t know why you’re even asking me,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what you want to look like.’ This must be, in a very crowded field, one of the most ridiculous things my husband has ever said.  What I want to look like? I’m going to my son’s wedding, I want to look nice.  I’m not going to a fancy dress party where I might be wanting to look like, say, Elvis Presley, or a hobbit.

The trouble was that I was trying to compensate for everything I’m not – young, svelte, tall, tanned, stable in high heels – and that’s before I even begin to consider how my delicate Anglo-Irish constitution will cope with Greece in high summer. Since I don’t know my daughter-in-law’s family, I’m obviously anxious to make a good impression, and as a fairly casual person I don’t want to look as though I haven’t dressed up because that might look as though I don’t care about the wedding when the truth is I care too much.  But does making an effort mean I have to be got up like Hyacinth Bucket at a Buckingham Palace garden party?

 I read an article that said the essence of style is to simply be yourself. Stylish people always say this, of course, and it’s alright for them because who they are is a person who’s stylish. I asked myself the question: if I went to this wedding as ‘me’ what would that look like?

Hmmm …..difficult to know the answer to that question when you’re a woman of a certain age with  grown-up kids. I thought back to past versions of me. As a child I liked dressing up; my style was very much ‘more is more’.  I loved adding stuff to my hair, for example. There are photos of me aged three or four going about my toddler business with flowers, scarves, jewellery and any hat I could find plonked on my head. As a teenager in the punk era, my friends and I got clothes from Oxfam and customised them. Memories came flooding back. I remembered buying a man’s beige jacket and painting a picture of Johnny Rotten on the back. I paired my dad’s striped dressing gown with the belt from my young brother’s cowboy outfit. I tied my mother’s necklaces round my legs in what I hoped mirrored bondage fashion, but had to remove them so blood could continue to circulate round my body. The ethos was about making outfits from whatever you could find and not being told how to dress or be. Obviously, this could not be allowed to continue because there was no profit in it, so like everything else this free spirit was eventually crowded out by conformity and commodification.

I wondered where that girl had gone. The parallels with Shirley Valentine did not escape me. Perhaps I might rediscover the real me in Thessaloniki and never come back to Leeds?  

In the middle of this identity crisis, my son sent me a text informing me that as the MOG I would be  required to do a dance at the wedding – a dance of transition – with the bride. This would not be a problem, according to my son, as he would send me a video so I could practice.   

So now, in addition to the cascade of concerns my outfit had to address (including, in no particular order:  middle-aged spread, cross-cultural anxiety, heatstroke, sustainability, wobbly ankles, Greek Orthodox etiquette, and bingo wings) I also had to factor in Zorba’s Dance.  

Potential dance by the Mother of the Groom?

My husband stepped in to remind me what really mattered – that our son is marrying a wonderful girl we’re delighted to welcome into our family. We’re going to love the wedding and getting to know our new extended Greek family. It’s all about joy. Everything else is small stuff.

 I know, I know….but can’t I have the joy and something that covers bingo wings?

In the end I bought new – but there is a sustainable angle. It’s something I will wear and wear – thanks to a wonderful local dressmakers I discovered. The outfit was a navy chiffon layered dress. I was very happy with it (bingo wings sorted, since you ask) but it bothered me that I wouldn’t wear it often because I much prefer trousers. Getting the dress shortened into a long top meant I could wear it with palazzo pants, so it’s now an outfit I will wear forever. I plan to get other clothes altered now I’ve realised how easily they can be made just right. Women often say they have nothing to wear when their wardrobes are bursting. Perhaps it’s because a lot of those clothes don’t fit properly. Using a dressmaker didn’t even enter my head at the start of my search but now it’s right up there on my list of sustainable options.

When did wedding dressing get so out of hand?    

For my wedding in the 90s, both my mother and mother-in-law wore beautiful dress-suits and hats that they rarely wore again, if ever. What a waste.  I doubt that for their own weddings in the early 60s their mothers had bought brand new outfits. And I remember my grandma saying that for her wedding in 1934 she chose a crepe dress that she later dyed forest green and wore many times after the wedding.

Let’s resist the pressure that leads to fast fashion and landfill.   

So now, with my outfit sorted – Big Fat Greek Wedding here we come!

Julie

No-dig gardening is ideal for kids

If you work with nature, she doesn’t fight back with weeds.

 That’s the view of horticulturalist Charles Dowding, the champion of no-dig gardening.

His new book, No-Dig Children’s Gardening Book, shows youngsters how they can work with nature using compost and mulch to create healthy soil, copying nature’s way of feeding plants through the soil.

 Charles believes the no-dig method is ideal for children because they come to gardening with an open mind and no preconceived ideas.

The no-dig method involves creating beds by covering weeds with cardboard, spreading compost on top, walking on top of the compost (a child-friendly activity if ever there was one) to create a bed that is ready to plant into.  

His book includes the following topics:

  • What makes soil healthy
  • How to make compost
  • The power of microbes
  • Upcycling in the garden
  • Attracting wildlife
  • How to be a garden scientist
  • Easy-grow flowers and vegetables
  • Gardening for children with additional needs.

 Charles says, ‘Nature wants plants to grow as much as we do.’

He says ‘no-dig’ is simple and quick and will inspire children to make beds any month of the year. They can then watch their plants grow, see how good they taste, and feel their knowledge and happiness growing at the same time.

The method eliminates ‘unnecessary jobs that until now have been done by so many gardeners’.

Anyone who has experienced the benefits of gardening will agree with Charles’s belief that gardening teaches us a great deal, whatever our age.  

The following is an extract from an interview with Charles Dowding in the current edition of The Green Parent.

How did your no-dig method evolve?

 I wanted to grow healthy foods. I started organic gardening in 1982 but realised that was only the first step. It was a gut feeling that there was a connection between soil, plants, animals and people. It led me to think about what was in the soil, what life; at the time nobody was talking about it. But it’s only recently I’ve started talking about it and presenting it to the world.

No-dig frees you up to spend your time in the garden more creatively; how do you like to do that?

You inherit this Victorian notion that plants have to be regimented, grown in rows. I like tidiness, that’s admirable, but what I really want is beauty. I like to introduce flowers here there and everywhere. It’s easier because the biggest bonus with no-dig is that you get no weeds! And the most creative thing you can do is make compost. That’s the ultimate creative act. 

Is no-dig especially suited to kids?

Yes. Older people might find it more difficult to accept that what they might consider the right way to garden is maybe not so clever after all. They have to unlearn, but children come to it fresh. But it all makes sense. Kids love the process; that you’re not disturbing the natural life and creatures below the surface, so that carries on working to keep the soil open and aerated and make nutrition for the plant roots.

What benefits does gardening have for kids?

It’s not just about being in the fresh air. It’s about the good bacteria that are floating around; we pick them up and use them to make serotonin. That’s why we feel good being outside. You find tryptophan in plants and vegetables and that makes your mood better. If you eat a bit of soil that’s got the same biome as a healthy gut, the same microbes.

Taking tea with milk, sugar – and plastic?

Every day 165 million cups of tea are drunk in Britain – and that’s just in our house.

Since today is National Tea Day (April 21), I expect a lot more facts will be shared and the ones I’ll be paying close attention to are those concerning plastic.

Like millions of other tea drinkers, I was alarmed a few years ago to learn that most tea bags contained plastic – polypropylene – used to heat-seal the edges of the bags.

This news sparked health concerns among tea drinkers as well as raising questions about the effect on the soil and wildlife when these tea bags were composted.

  Of those millions of cups of tea drunk every day, 96 per cent are made with tea bags. So if you were home-composting your share of those tea bags you might have been unwittingly leaving bits of microplastic (tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size) in the soil.

As a result of the controversy, manufacturers started to remove polypropylene from their teabags. Naively, I thought that was the end of it and that now in 2023 we would all be taking our tea with milk and sugar but no plastic, thanks.  

While talking to a customer recently, the topic turned to composting tea bags. We both remembered early attempts at plastic-free teabags that led to the bags dissolving in the cup, but we didn’t know the current state of play. I resolved to find out more – more of which later.

 Like many Brits, I feel there are few situations in life that can’t be improved by a nice cup of tea. My day can’t start before a pint of Earl Grey has entered my system and the rest of the day is propped up at regular intervals by yet more tea. Is this a psychological thing? The very words, ‘I’ll put the kettle on’ appear to have a soothing Pavlovian effect on my nervous system. So why, on any given day, are there half-cups of cold tea littered around the house and office? It’s as though the thought of having a cup of tea always seems like a good idea even if I’m not that bothered about actually drinking it.

 I’ve realised I have a blind spot when it comes to wasting tea. I take great care not to waste food but don’t give the same consideration to drinks; it’s as if because they’re liquid they don’t count. So many problems with waste are caused through us being creatures of habit.

Of course, I’m using energy every time I put the kettle on, not to mention wasting the tea, the water and soya milk that’s used if I don’t drink the whole cup. So this is one robotic, wasteful habit that I’m in the process of breaking. From now on I will be mindful not mindless about putting the kettle on.

I stopped drinking my regular brand a few years ago because of concerns about plastic and switched to Hampstead Tea. I was particularly interested to learn about this brand’s commitment to biodynamic farming – an organic, ecological approach, employing the use of manures and compost.

Researching the subject has made me switch to loose leaf tea.  Then I don’t have to think about plastic particles, bag materials or questions of compostability.

Tea bags only became freely available in the 1950s, meaning that many generations before me had to contend with tea leaves and old-fashioned teapots. And they all seemed to cope just fine, along with other challenges such as having to slice their own bread. When I think of family members talking about how hard life used to be, there were memories of poverty, short life expectancy, outside toilets and tin baths, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying, ‘And on top of all that, we didn’t have tea bags!’

Other advantages of being a loose (leaf) woman:

  • Less package waste
  •  The tea itself tends to be less processed and retains more of the original flavour
  • You can adjust the strength and even blend your own.

Modern teapots have built-in infusers, meaning it’s easy to get the tea leaves into the compost and wash out the pot.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you want to home compost your tea bags.  Tea leaves are ideal compost material, providing high levels of nitrogen (even higher than manures) and small particles so compost bacteria have more surface area to work on.

On my internet trawl to find out more about plastic in tea bags, I found confusing and conflicting information, with experts arguing about the merits of bioplastics.  And that’s before you start reading comments underneath articles. The word biodegradable is also bandied about by many interested parties as though it’s an ecological holy grail when all it means is that material will break down eventually, but you won’t know how long that will take and under what conditions.

Online information also quickly goes out of date because some tea brands are still working towards their plastic-free goals, which might have been achieved after articles have been published.

 I’ve spent several hours that I’ll never get back reading through studies and articles; my advice to a home-composting tea drinker would be to contact your favourite brand and find out where they are on the plastic-free/compostable journey.

Points to consider:

  • Many tea brands are still using polypropylene. If tea bags contain plastic, you can compost the leaves but throw the bag in general waste. Plastic in tea bags sent to landfill will still enter the soil.
  • Be aware there may also be hidden plastics in sachets or string-and-tag bags.
  • Many brands that don’t use polypropylene use polylactic acid (PLA). This is a plant-based polymer (sometimes referred to as a bioplastic). It can also be called Soilon.
  •  Plant material sources include corn starch, which can come from genetically modified (GM) maize – but this cannot be used in organic teabags.
  • While PLA is biodegradable, it requires industrial composting to break down because most ordinary garden composters might not get hot enough (44 – 60 degrees Celsius) to break down the bags.  It is thought teabags containing PLA could take several years to degrade, and it is not known exactly how harmful it might be to organisms in the meantime. If your council has a separate food waste collection, teabags made with PLA can be placed into your food waste bin to be industrially composted.
  • Like oil-based plastics, if bioplastics end up in the ocean they can present a danger to marine life.
  • The origins of the tea bag might have been accidental – in 1908 an American tea importer who shipped silk tea bags around the world found that customers, instead of removing the leaves from the bags as he intended, found it easier to brew the tea with the tea leaves still enclosed in the porous bags.

Among comments following an online BBC report from 2019 are some from people who had been putting tea bags in home compost for years until they realised they were having to pick plastic remnants out of the soil – even 15 years later. One reader commented he had stopped composting tea bags for use as garden mulch when he saw birds picking up the bag remnants and using them in their nest building.

At home, our Green Johanna’s contents reach regular temperatures of between 40 – 60+ degrees Celsius; we measure the temperature every day. According to the Carry on Composting website, Composting – www.carryoncomposting.com, the corn starch Soilon can hot compost in 6-8 weeks. The site recommends cutting a couple of holes in tea bags so composting bacteria can easily access the leaves, accelerating the rate of decomposition.

The Ethical Consumer website Is there Plastic in my Tea? | Ethical Consumer features a chart based on information from Feb/March 2022 that lists the following as ‘best brands’: Clearspring, Essential, Hambledon Herbs, Hampstead tea, Heath and Heather, Higher Living and Dr Stuart’s, Pukka, Qi, Postcard, Teapigs, Yogi Tea.

The site also lists middle companies ‘who are using some PLA, or are in the process of switching’, as well as the worst. But bear in mind that the situation might have changed since then.

I’ll end with some ideas for homegrown tea that I read in the Comments section of one article.

 Easily sourced throughout the year from your garden:  
(dried) rosehip tea
(dried) chamomile tea
Fresh peppermint/spearmint tea
Fresh nettle tea

For winter (all easily sourced from one’s larder)

dried/root ginger tea
fennel seed tea
liquorice root tea
cardamom tea

Also recommended: cinnamon stick/star anise/vanilla pod tea.

I’m tempted to try some of these. Maybe my Earl Grey will meet competition.

Julie

Spare Parts