I’ve been having some fascinating conversations with friends who are environmental activists, journalists and researchers, about the great conundrum that reading up on waste has faced me with: given the multitude of ways we’ve wrecked the planet almost past repair, is there any point in reducing waste? Why are we taking cloth bags to the shops when industries hellbent on profit are pouring CO2 into the air, polluting our oceans and water supplies, denuding soil, wiping out forests, and destroying the “lowly” members of the food chain (insects, amphibians, birds, fish) on which we’re absolutely reliant if we are to go on eating? Isn’t asking people to give up plastic toothbrushes a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic? In fact, polishing the brass screws on those deckchairs?
If you do the reading, there’s no getting around the fact that environmental activism is urgently needed and must involve more than just recycling our glass and cans: it needs to get political. Like growing numbers of schoolchildren around the globe, we should be marching in the streets. The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose” is increasingly looking quaint and ineffective in comparison with “refuse, resist, revolt, rewild”. Scientists have explained with crystal clarity that it’s not individual efforts that are going to save the planet: for that, our craven governments have to call a halt to the plunder by big corporates that they and we have allowed; and we have to replace our lethal economic (“growth is the one true good, growth at any cost”) models.
So why bother? Leonie Joubert, the brilliant science writer I often cite, has pointed out that the only alternative to literally suicidal despair is to become solution-oriented (read her NB piece — it starts getting hopeful on p. 4). This has several benefits, and not just the obvious one — that concerted efforts by many individuals can have a significant impact, as we all learned during the water crisis. (Across the board, the residents of Cape Town reduced their water usage by a THIRD almost overnight.) Doing something, no matter how small, reduces our sense of anxiety, despair, helpless rage and grief. It models decent behaviour for our children (who are going to judge the hell out of us — in fact, they’re already doing so). To go back to the Titanic example: if the ship is going down anyway, it might not do any good rearranging the deckchairs, much less wiping specks of dust off them. But hastily roping them together to create extra life-rafts? Can’t hurt, might help, and will give passengers something proactive and constructive to do in the face of impending disaster. Even better if folk pull together as a team in the process.
So, here are a few small but useful tips. I’ve realised my big waste-wise Achilles heel is the vast range of cleaning products under my sink. Not just because they’re mostly unnecessary — many are in plastic or other containers that present a disposal problem. The entire lot can be replaced with bicarb and spirit vinegar.
I got this great idea for addressing the pungent odour of vinegar from the writer Christine Coates: buy 5-litre bottles, decant into smaller bottles, insert lavender stalks/flowers or citrus peel (I’m trying scented pelargoniums at the moment) and stand in the sun for a few days. The vinegar turns a pretty colour and smells delicious. Use it to clean showers, tiles, kitchen surfaces, glass, mirrors. If there’s crusted or baked-on dirt, sprinkle on bicarb as well and use a little elbow grease.
Last week, I spilled a tray of gravy and fat all over the oven, spattering the sides and creating an oily charcoal puddle on the bottom. I threw a cup of bicarb at the problem, followed it with a half a cup of hot water, then left it all to stand for 24 hours. Whereupon it all lifted off as smooth as silk, as I wiped first with paper towels, then reusable cloths — no scrubbing or rubbing needed. It’s the cleanest my oven has ever been.
I found this article, claiming that all household cleansers can be replaced with these two cheap, biodegradable options plus Castile soap, hard to believe at first, but so far my experiments show that specialist cleaning fluids (including the green products on which I’ve spent a fortune in my lifetime, and which still present containers in need of recycling) are yet another enormous marketing con. We truly don’t need them.
Next, my Quaker friend Sue Mottram has come up with a wonderful idea for Lent, for those who mark this time of the Christian year. Instead of giving up chocolate or coffee, put a household item or piece of clothing in a box for each of the forty days of Lent. Come Easter, donate this box to a charity or non-profit. Another idea: if living plastic-free is new to you, try giving up plastic, or at least single-use plastic, for Lent. Or start stuffing small bits of single-use plastic into 2-litre milk containers to create ecobricks (this great article will tell you all you need to know): this has the added benefit of compacting together lots of little bits of plastic that are particularly lethal to ocean fish and birds, and very hard to clean up once in our water systems.
I spotted a mostly North American Facebook group asking its members how far they were from their nearest zero-waste store. We should ask the same, especially if we have regular farmers’ markets within reach. Calculate whether you can make a trip to this shop or market part of your regular grocery run, and keep a box or basket in the boot of your car with jars, packets, bags and containers to use for your purchases.
This is also time to think collectively and act co-operatively: find your local waste-free shop and commit to it. I’m lucky to have the Low-Impact Living Cafe in neighbouring Glencairn, with its legendary coffee and homemade bread.
If you live in the South Peninsula of Cape Town, this particular outfit is looking for members to sign up and pay R1000. This isn’t a loan or a donation: it’s an advance payment towards six months of groceries. The details are all here: email them on firstname.lastname@example.org to join. I’ve been very impressed by their range of goods in the past, and can’t wait for them to re-open the shop side of the business.