Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Bag It

I have just discovered a plastic documentary I hadn't previously heard of: Bag It - Is Your Life too Plastic? Watching the trailer gave me a strangely familiar feeling - yes, my life is too plastic; yes, these are all things I think about and worry about. It's like the guy is reading my mind.

Bag It Intro from Suzan Beraza on Vimeo.

Check out the Bag It website and the Bag It blog - well worth reading.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

On 'Stuff'

I’ve been thinking about ‘stuff’ lately.

After living independently for over five years, I have accumulated quite a bit of stuff. Furniture, books, general household stuff, a vacuum leaner, a lawn mower, books, cutlery, cups, mugs, more books. Enough to fill a 30 foot square storage room. It may sound like a joke, but last time I went to get something out of this room, stuff had been piled in so high that it literally fell out onto me in a big crash, bang, wollop, when I opened the door.

It’s only stuff...
What is stuff? For a short time earlier this year I shared a house with my friend C. Then she sorted her life out, got a new job and moved to Whitby. This was a fairly major undertaking: she went from a two bedroom house and all the attendant ‘stuff’ to a single live-in room in the hotel she’s now managing, which meant a serious spring clean, whittling down her possessions to a mix of the absolute necessities and items of extreme sentimental value. She sent ahead five boxes of bits and pieces, books, clothes, toiletries, sewing machine, etc (or was it only four?), has a very small chest of breakable items stored in a friend’s garage, and on the day of her journey took two suitcases with her. To go from a two bed house to four boxes and two suitcases is pretty incredible, especially when I consider that, knowing her, most of that space was probably taken up by beauty products, nail varnish and knickers.

“It’s only stuff,” she said, when I expressed incredulity at what she was expelling from her life. And she’s right, of course. It is only stuff. Each item taken on its own is replaceable. She wasn’t going to need it in her new home, and there was nowhere for it to go in the meantime. While she separated less than fifty books from the two or three hundred on her bookshelves to keep, I separated around the same amount from my shelves to give away. While she posted lists of unneeded furniture on Freecycle, I stuffed mine back into my storage hole, filling the drawers with blankets and bed linen. While she copied music and DVDs onto a spanking new iPod, giving away the hard copies, I separated mine into ‘need to keep with me just in case I fancy watching them soon’ and ‘don’t need easy access to them, but don’t want to get rid of them’ piles.

But it’s my stuff...
So, I sit here and think about all my stuff shoved away into that little space in a countryside warehouse. A double bed, a wardrobe, coffee table. And I think, I really should sell it; I really don’t need it. Do I? And then I think, but I still want it. It’s my stuff and it cost me money. It’s an investment.

1. On one side it represents my past, and now I want to let go of that, because it’s past and it’s not coming back. I am not getting Bron back. He’s not who he was when we met and we can’t go back to how things were four, five years ago, no matter how much I dream it could be true. He is who is now and I am who I am now, and we don’t add up anymore.

2. But the flip side is that it’s also my future. I want my own place again, and when I get that I’m going to need furniture and plates and cutlery and bed linen.

Here is my line of thinking; I'm going to argue this out in words.
(a) I could give away or sell what I have now and buy new stuff again when I need it. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of purging, of not having that room of stuff permanently in the back of my mind. Someone else might need these things right now and having them locked away is a waste.
(b) There are some things in that room that I really don’t want to get rid of. But there's no reason why I couldn't keep those particular things if I really wanted to.
(c) But: replacing anything I do get rid of at some future point will likely cost more than I’d get from selling them today. And the actual act of replacing them can be a stressful and time-consuming business.
(d) But then again, what if I am lucky enough to get an exciting new job somewhere outside of Cornwall? Transporting all that stuff out of the county is also going to be pretty stressful and time consuming.
(e) And so I find I have argued myself back to where I started.

But, then again, it’s only stuff and what, after all, is stuff? And the amount of brain time this stuff is causing me seems to indicate that stuff is probably more trouble than its worth. I look at C, and I look at another friend, B, who I met through Shortcourse and Hevva Hevva, who is living the lifestyle I profess to believe in: buying only second-hand, organising swap parties rather than going on shopping trips, and I think: I should be doing that.

I should be doing that. And the place to start is to just get in there and do it, to stop thinking about it, to stop questioning it and my attachments. Make a list and stick to it.

Any hints?

Friday, 1 June 2012

Back to it: Recycled or Degradable?

One of the things I'm often forced to consider when researching packaging policies is the question, what is better: recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic? It's the kind of question that can only be tackled with a pro/con list and even then the scales have a tendency to come out looking pretty balanced. In a previous post on the subject, The Fine Plastic Line, I came down on the side (just) of recycled plastic, because it means putting waste plastic back into the system rather than putting it into the ground. And this is why I supported Waterstones' bag policy, the company I work for, who sourced recycled plastic for their bags.

Mystery policy change...
Or, at least, they used to. Because I recently noticed two changes in the bags we're receiving in our store. Firstly, the littlest, greetings card-sized bags are no longer nice, traditional, brown recycled paper. Nope, only plastic ones are available now. And secondly, the texture of the plastic bags are different (large, medium and small alike). More glossy, less dusty. This is because, as further inspection revealed, they are no longer made from recycled plastic. They are now classed as degradable plastic, sourced from a company called EPI Global.

Ok, so for starters, here are two important terms. They sound pretty similar, but actually have quite different consequences.

1. Degradable. This applies to a plastic that is designed to "undergo a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions" (source:, leading to the point where it can no longer technically be defined as a 'plastic'. In other words, it simply breaks down to a certain point whereby it no longer resembles it's original form, e.g. is a pile of little pieces instead of a whole plastic bag.

2. Biodegradable. "A degradable plastic in which the degradation results from the action of naturally-occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae" (source: as above). In other words, it's broken down by living organisms. In the process of this, the organisms will consume and thus convert the materials' component parts into other things such as living material or gas.

These are two distinct processes and should not be confused. Degradable does not mean the material has gone, it simply means it doesn't look like it did before; it might have a slightly different chemical structure than it did before, but that doesn't necessarily equate to its being harmless. Biodegradable, however, is, in my opinion, much better and more valid - biodegradable is good because it means that the chemicals/materials are available for nature to make use of. Organisms aren't able to use or break down the chemicals in traditional plastics because the molecules are so tightly bound together they can't break them apart - and that's why plastic waste is such a massive problem, there's nowhere for it to go, no way for it to be cycled back into the world's natural systems. So, if anyone is wondering about buying a plastic that is marked as degradable, make sure it is biodegradable, otherwise it's pointless.

EPI Environmental Products Inc.EPI Global and TDPA
So what do EPI Global do? Well, they market a chemical called TDPA. TDPA stands for 'Totally Degrdadable Plastics Additives'. It's a chemical that plastics manufacturers can add to their product - e.g. a plastic bag - that, after a certain period of time, will catalyse that product's degradation. That means its presence will considerably increase the speed at which the bag will break down into smaller pieces. TDPA causes (a) the long polymer molecules that constitute plastic to be broken down into shorter molecules, and (b) promotes oxidation. The oxidation (i.e. oxygen groups attach themselves to the polymers) causes the molecules to became hydrophilic (i.e. attractive to water) and small enough to be eaten by micro-organisms, thus available for biodegradation.

Now, I've always been a bit suspicious of claims about biodegradable plastic. I can't help but wonder whether the science works in reality, whether it holds up its end of the bargain once the plastic is in the real world, being subjected to real and changeable environments. Sure it may work in the lab where everything is controlled and the perfect conditions are provided, but I know the real world rarely functions in quite the same way as a laboratory. This is one reason why I generally go for recycled over biodegradable. Another reason is that I don't think its sensible to be making plastic items out of virgin plastic (i.e. brand new plastic resin), given as (a) we're up to our knees in it already, and (b) making plastic is a dirty business that uses valuable resources.

And back to Waterstones
The truth is, I'm not sure how I feel about Waterstones' policy change when it comes to plastic bags. I guess I'm disappointed, mostly because I haven't seen anything about the decision on either their internal or external CSR (corporate social responsibility) pages - in fact, on their policy continues to incorrectly state that the company uses recycled plastic for their bags. The company was bought out nearly a year ago by a Russian oligarch, and a new MD, James Daunt, installed. He's been making lots and lots of interesting and exciting changes to the business, but I'm disappointed that CSR seems to have slipped off the radar a little bit. If I was given the opportunity, I'd love to get more involved in this at a head office level, because at the moment there doesn't seem to be much opportunity for the average bookseller to get their voice heard about environmental concerns at the higher level. When I tried, a couple of years ago, to question their wrapping paper choices, I never got a response. I absolutely understand that Mr Daunt has a lot of much more pressing business concerns, but that doesn't make CSR any less important.

So, I'd like to know:
1. Waterstones, why have you changed your bag policy? What information made you decide to discontinue the small paper bags, and switch all plastic bags away from recycled to degradable?

2. EPI Global, can I see your plastic biodegradation for myself?