Friday, 24 September 2010

Making lemonade out of lemons

Richard Lang and Judith Selby
I recently came across a lovely new blog (well, new to me), Plastic Forever. The two authors, Lang and Selby, have spent the last eleven years collecting plastic from their local beach, Kehoe in California. Not just collecting it and storing it, but making art from it. The upshot of this is that (a) their blog is full of really beautiful and striking images, and (b) their art is now being used to promote plastic awareness, advertising the US Coastal Awareness day at the end of September.

Lemons and lemonade
A very cool project, but they are not alone. Plastic beach art is cropping up everywhere – which is almost certainly a reflection of the increasing problem of plastic waste on our beaches. More and more people are starting to notice it and be drawn to it. The images, sculptures, and displays that result are beautiful and bleak, simple and intricate, inspiring and worrying. Here are just a few examples.

Steve McPherson
My colleague, G, saw a postcard advertising an exhibition of Steve McPherson’s work whilst on holiday, very kindly thought of me, and brought it back for me to see. According to his website, he’s been collecting discarded plastic items and fragments from the Kent coast for over 15 years.

Georgina Maxwell
My mum is responsible for bringing Georgina’s work to my attention. Based close to my own home in Cornwall, she has, again, been collecting and creating for over a decade, and has plenty of colourful, striking, and attention grabbing ‘trash’ to show for it.

Tuula Narhinen
I met with marine scientist Richard Thompson in the spring to find out about his research into marine plastic, and he very kindly gave me an art magazine showcasing Tuula’s work, which varies from jewellery made from mermaid’s tears to strange animal-like sculptures, ‘Frutti di Mare’.

Diana Boulay
Diana is based in Canada which, along with Lang & Selby in California, Tuula in Finland, and the two British artists, just goes to show how widespread the problem is. And I’m sure there are plenty more artists out there making use of similar finds.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Jack Johnson Rocks!

I just found this brilliant little ditty, 'No need to be such a fancy pants', by Jack Johnson, care of Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Visit Johnson's social action network, All At Once, to learn more about his eco credentials and to get involved yourself.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Fine Plastic Line

I have been thinking for a while now about where or if a line can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable plastics. But the more I think about it, the more vague and sticky the subject seems to become in my mind.

1. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from recycled plastic?
2. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from compostable or degradable plastic?

I talked a little about my concerns regarding degradable plastic in July’s post, ‘Degradable Bin Bags’. I was very impressed to receive a comment from the manufacturer I mentioned, Symphony UK, but I still have some doubts. They included within the comment a link to a YouTube video showing the degradation of their plastic bags, ‘Plastic Bag Degrading’, which was cool to see, but I need to read up more on the science and how exactly, to quote Symphony, once the bag reaches fragmentation stage, “it is no longer a plastic.” Maybe I could visit your factory, Symphony, and see it in action?

Again, I talked about this recently, in my post, 'Life's little luxuries'. For a plastic in the UK to be defined as compostable, it must adhere to the EN 13432 certification. But this means that the plastic will degrade within very specific composting conditions, which are often only present in highly controlled commercial composting operations, and not so likely to be found in my own little garden compost bin.

The burning question in my mind is whether buying products wrapped in degradable or compostable plastics is a genuinely safe alternative? It must better to buy these rather than regular plastic, but is it good or wise to support them, or better to try and find a completely plastic-free alternative?

Recycled plastics add a whole new dimension. I think it’s really good that more and more manufacturers are producing things made from recycled rather than virgin plastic, and I want to support them because I feel that it’s a really important step. Using recycled plastic to make new things makes it worthwhile for me to put what plastic I do use in my recycling bins – to not buy things that have been recycled negates at least one of the benefits of recycling stuff in the first place. And there has to be a market for for recycled materials - otherwise what's the point?

A benefit of buying recycled plastic is that no new (or very limited new) materials have gone into its production. That means reduced environmental impact on the earth and in the air. Of course, there are energy costs involved, from the collection of the original products, to the remodelling of those products, and their subsequent redistribution – I haven’t seen any specific figures on this for plastic, but as far as I’m aware, it’s generally regarded that these come out somewhere below the energy cost of quarrying for fresh resources and initial processing.

But: most plastics that can be recycled can only be recycled once (though there are companies out there working on closed loop systems), so most products made of recycled plastic have hit the end of their lifetimes. And then all the same disposal issues apply as with virgin plastic – as in, there is no way to get rid of it.

The Fine Line?
Where does the balance lie? I’m leaning toward this order of preference:

1. No plastic (duh!)
2. Recycled or easily recyclable plastic is better than compostable plastic
3. Compostable or easily recyclable plastic is better than degradable plastic
4. Degradable plastic is better than ‘regular’ non-recyclable plastic
5. Never buy any plastic that’s not either recycled or recyclable

Monday, 13 September 2010

Biodegradable - or not?

Seventh Generation has an interesting comment/perspective on the viability of biodegradable bags for the weekly rubbish vs. recycled bags...

"Ask Science Man"

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Life's little luxuries

Toilet roll. One of the nicest of modern conventions, yet in some ways another bane of my life. In my bid to be plastic-free, acquiring toilet roll is one of my ongoing problems.

Plastic-free toilet roll just doesn’t seem to exist. At least, not in the dark depths of Cornwall in which I live. Toilet roll is paper after all, surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to wrap it in a thin paper covering rather plastic? What do I do? Give up toilet roll?

The Moneyless Man
I have recently finished reading a new book by Mark Boyle, the founder of the Freeconomy community. Titled ‘The Moneyless Man’, it recounts a year spent – you guessed it – living without money. It’s a really interesting read which I highly recommend. Very inspiring in many ways, it forced me to consider my own views and wants in terms of the type of lifestyle I seek, though the ultimate conclusion I drew was that I couldn’t go as far as he has. Not without ditching Bron, anyway, as he’s made it very clear to me that that is well beyond what he deems acceptable.

So what does the moneyless man use for toilet roll? If I remember correctly, newspaper - for the most part. But more importantly are the issues he raises about the modern convenience that is the toilet. I won’t go into a lot of detail here as I’m getting off topic, suffice to say that using a resource as vital and valuable as water to defecate in is, frankly, a bit stupid. Compost toilets are the more sensible route.

Ecoleaf and Bioplast
So, newspaper. I have yet to suggest this idea to Bron, but I suspect I can already his reaction. ‘No way!’ would probably be the most polite way to sum up what I can imagine his answer would be.

Which leaves me rather limited options, given as I don’t think either he, our neighbours, or our landlady would go for the construction of a human compost area in our tiddly, heavily overlooked back garden either. For the time being, therefore, I have settled on Ecoleaf toilet rolls. The packaging on these, though plastic, says, ‘100% compostable wrap; 100% recycled paper; 100% commitment’.

100% compostable? This brings me right back to the degradable plastics debate started in my previous post, ‘Degradable Bin Bags?’ But, ‘Ecoleaf toilet tissue is wrapped in Bioplast, a plasticizer-free and fully compostable packaging. It will biodegrade TOTALLY under the influence of soil-based micro-organisms without the need for human intervention. Made from potato starch and natural co-polymers, it is both sustainable and renewable. This product has been designed to be fully compostable.’

This packaging sounds like a degradable plastic in the more real sense than the D2W bin bags. The packaging lists it’s manufacturer as ‘Bioplast’, but when I visit their website I find myself incredibly confused - the description of their manufacturing process is so badly written that I could barely make head nor tail of it - which leaves me clueless when it comes to the details behind this particular product. So I decided to email them, to which their response has left me even more confused. Their product isn’t yet on the market, they tell me, so I must be barking up the wrong tree. Humph. So I try emailing Suma, the company behind the Ecoleaf brand, but receive absolutely no response at all from them. Humph again.

EN 13432
The best I can do is extend from the quote on the packaging. Being made from potato starch is an excellent start – a truly natural and easily degraded material - although I’d like to know what exactly the natural co-polymers they refer to are. The packaging also states that the plastic certified EN 13432.

EN 13432 is an internationally agreed standard that defines a plastic’s ability to degrade under commercial composting conditions. The advertisement of this standard on a plastic product is a good sign. However, the key term in the standard’s definition is ‘commercial’. Commercial, or industrial, composting units are much more tightly controlled systems than what the average citizen is likely to have in their back garden, creating and maintaining the most ideal composting environment, from temperature to PH and oxygen flow. This means that the composting process will be much quicker and more thorough than if I use my own composting bin. The issue with this is that once I put my rubbish out for the bin men to collect it, I don’t know whether it’ll be added to landfill or thrown in a composter – and so, even though the process may not be as efficient in my own bin, that’s what I plan to use, because at least I can be sure it is at least being given the opportunity to compost. I’ll just have to view it as a personal experiment to find out what will actually happen.

Read more about EN13432 and the OK Compost standards.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Mmmm... Cupcakes

1. Go to Lakeland and purchase some of their amazing silicone re-useable cupcake moulds. Ok, so they do come in little plastic tubs, but keep this packaging to store the moulds in whenever they’re not in use, and hundreds of cupcakes can be made without ever creating any waste.

2. Visit the local farm shop and purchase three free range eggs (or six for twice as many cupcakes!)

3. Purchase 6oz of butter, but do be careful with the selection as the posher butters are invariably wrapped in mixed materials packaging rather than paper – stick to something like Sainsbury’s basics for simple paper wrapping.

4. 6oz of sugar – Tate & Lyle may not be organic or raw cane sugar, but it does come in a paper bag.

5. 6oz of self-raising flour – more opportunities for going organic here as pretty much all flour remains available in a traditional paper packet.

6. A vanilla pod (should come in its own skin, no packaging required; well, theoretically).

7. Drop in to Co-op for some of their lovely fairtrade dark chocolate. 100g should do the job.

8. 1 tsp of baking powder. Now this is the tricky part. I haven’t yet sourced baking powder without the plastic packaging, but there’s no law that says baking powder must be used – try it without and they’re still pretty good.

9. 1 tbsp milk (preferably delivered by the local milkman in a traditional glass bottle).

10. In a glass bowl, melt together half the butter and all of the chocolate. Put to one side.

11. Mix together the rest of the ingredients (just a few seeds from the vanilla pod, not the whole thing!). Ideally an electric whizzer would be used here, but to be completely plastic free it could be done by hand. Hard work and serious elbow grease required, but it is possible. However, as I already own some plastic whizzers, I admit to not being dedicated enough to complete this particular task by hand just yet.

12. Mix in the melted chocolate and butter.

13. Spread cupcake moulds out on baking tray and spoon mixture into them.

14. Bake at 180 degrees for approximately 20 minutes.

15. Guilt free eating pleasure.