mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

It is meat (and write so to do)

Firstly, I feel I should apologise for the headline. I have been told that if I want to increase the amount of search engine hits I have, I should make my headlines actually describe what I am writing about - but where would be the fun in that?

Anyway,  three weeks of my ban under the belt and I have discovered a fitting use for plastic wrapping.

My new butcher has very thoughtfully gone out of his way to help me, despite the slight sense I get from him that he thinks I am potty. I say new butcher, because it is nigh impossible to buy chicken or meat that doesn't come in plastic from a supermarket. Indeed it was four pork chops in a veritable boat of plastic that contributed to my ban in the first place.

I had thought meat would be a problem and wondered how people managed in days gone by. Then I had a vision of Lance-Corporal Jones (right), the butcher in Dad's Army, wrapping his wares in newspaper. It was possible for him to do that, partly because there was a war on, partly because health and safety rules hadn't yet banned newspaper as suitable wrapping material, and because people just shopped differently in those days, buying local and frequently.

So I rang Martins, my nearest butchers, and have now switched to buying my meat from them. This feels much better all round, it is a local business that supports local farms. The prices are also competitive, so I didn't feel I was straying too far from my plan to try and shop 'normally' without resorting to expensive high-end shops.

'This takes me back,' said the chap on the counter as he attempted to wrap up some chicken thighs in greaseproof paper. It wasn't going well, they kept spilling out. Eventually he managed to contain them and moved on to the chops. The queue behind me was starting to lengthen.

'This is how we did it when I started out,' he continued. It would be nice to write here that a look of nostalgia crept over his face, but it didn't. 'Plastic bags are a lot better,' he said. He was trying to stuff pet mince into paper bags as he said this, and I felt he had a point.

Back home I attempted to place the sloppy paper bags in the freezer feeling the need to process them quickly before they became saturated. This was a mistake. A little more thought with how I stored them might have helped when it come to defrosting. I will spare you the details of how I managed to separate paper bag from the gloopy pet mince, but it is fair to say the mince won.

The irony is that now when I bring meat home, I decant it into plastic tubs before putting it in the freezer. The other irony is that the bags the butcher normally uses are biodegradable, which makes all the effort in this direction feel a little irrelevant. Still, I shall soldier on. Don't panic!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

All gone teats up

The wheels are already falling off my 60-day plastic packaging ban.

I thought they might, somehow.

I moved swiftly to implement the ban, partly because I nearly always favour the bull-in-a-china-shop approach to life, but also because I felt that if I prepared for it, I would cheat. I chose 60 days, because it is long enough for me to run out of things like pasta, shampoo and floor cleaner - had I given myself a little more notice I might have felt tempted to do a little stocking up since the ban does not include using up existing plastic-packaged commodities.

Unfortunately, the first thing I ran out of was rubbish bags. Since they come in black plastic or, er, black plastic, I bowed to the inevitable and bought the most environmentally friendly sacks I could find.  But I still felt cross. I comforted myself by noticing that the wrapper around them was paper. So in a very disingenuous way, I didn't completely flout the terms of my ban. Although, of course, I did really. 

Next up was the very thing I thought would be one of the most problematic: milk. At first, I thought I had found an absurdly easy solution. Our village shop stocks organic milk provided courtesy of the cows of Riverford Dairy in Totnes, which comes in cardboard cartons.

But then I became suspicious about how the cartons fail to become soggy. So I rang up Riverford and discovered the cartons have a very fine film of plastic on the inside. They are fully recyclable, but don't quite fulfil the terms of my ban.

Barry, the operations manager at Riverford, very decently suggested I try to find someone who will sell me milk direct from a farm. We chatted for a while about the state of the milk industry. The sad fact, he said, is that in the drive for cheap non-organic milk the cow has come to be seen as a rather problematic inconvenience.  I admired his passion and commitment and decided I could do worse than sticking to Riverford milk for now.

But disaster struck on day two. I discovered we had run out of milk while actually in the process of making tea - actually in the process, mark you. I sent the girl child to the shop but she came back empty handed because all the cartons had gone. I gazed in panic at the the five cups lined up on the work surface. Some households run by clockwork and on organisation - ours runs on tea. I was due to leave the house for several hours and couldn't begin to contemplate how ugly the mood would turn if I left it milkless.

'That's plastic,' said Sam at the shop as I sheepishly bought some semi-skimmed. 'I know,' I said in anguish 'it's an emergency.' Later, I headed for a supermarket where I was sure I had seen old-fashioned glass bottles of milk. There were indeed bottles that resembled such a thing, but when I reached for one I discovered it was plastic, as was everything else on the milk shelf.

I gave up.

The next day I knocked on the door of a village farm to ask if they would sell me a jug of milk. 'Not any more,' said the farmer's wife regretfully. 'It's illegal now.' She and her husband, it turned out, started selling milk in 1946. It didn't surprise me; you can't move in this village for sprightly octo- and nonogenarians. She explained that they gave up dairy farming years ago - partly because the price of milk made it uneconomical, but also because of the ever growing list of regulations.

This was confirmed by Frances, a local dairy farmer. 'To sell green-top [unpasteurised] milk, you have to jump through hoops and more hoops,' she said. 'What if I can find someone who pasteurises it on the their farm,' I asked. 'You can try,' she said, 'but they will probably bottle it in plastic.'

'What if I take my own container along,' I asked. 'Well,' she said doubtfully 'there are all sorts of health and safety rules around containers.'

'Oh, for pity's sake,' I said 'surely if I want to live dangerously by using my own jug, I should be allowed to.'

 'Where do you get your milk,' I asked Frances.  'Straight from the cow.' she said with a grin.

Well, I guess that cuts out the bloody plastic.

Monday, 24 March 2014


In Rome there is a man-made hill called Monte Testaccio, which only exists because all five acres and 120ish feet of it sits on top of discarded Roman amphora empties - around 53 million of them, apparently.

Landfill sites, it seems, are not a new concept.

This struck me as interesting, because of late I just can't stop thinking rubbish. This was partly prompted by watching Tales from the Green Valley - in which a group of hands-on historians set out to recreate a seventeenth century working farm. It was the first in a series that went on to spawn Victorian Farm and other reconstructions.

I was struck by how little waste was generated on the farm. There was very little of the produce that wasn't utilised in some way; the wing feathers of geese were used as dusters or quills, and the straw of the long-stemmed wheat made into rope, for instance. Ash from the wood fire was used to make liquid soap. And even waste wasn't wasted - urine was stored, fermented and used to bleach laundry. The privy was an important source of compost. Packaging, of course, was virtually non existent.

I spent a very intense half an hour thinking about this, during which it occurred to me that if the human race put some thought into it, rubbish would be, well, unthinkable. We're the only species that generates it, and for most of homo sapiens 200,000-year development we haven't generated much of it either, give or take the odd amphorae mound.

Personally, I blame Henry Ford - the father of mass production. He didn't invent the assembly line, but my goodness he certainly embraced it and went on to pioneer the first affordable motor car for the masses. And so the world came to embrace affordable stuff for the masses too - so much so it formed the foundation for the entire global economy.

So we buy stuff, and then we buy newer stuff to replace the stuff we bought last year that has now lost its shine or ceased to function. A couple of years ago a friend gave me a first generation iPod Touch. It is still an impressive piece of kit, but you can't buy an app that will work on it now - it's obsolete, you see. And then we buy items like cheap socks by the dozen with heels and toes that only last a few outings before we have to throw them away and buy new ones.

And all of it comes in packaging. Even really useful stuff, food, for instance, comes in lots and lots of packaging. I have seen polystyrene banana-shaped packaging containing a single banana; I have marvelled at shrink-wrapped peppers. The cauliflower and cabbage I bought from Sainsbury's the other day, both came in discrete plastic film wrappers - and the question you have to ask yourself is, why?

When we lived in our caravan on the field we had to dispose of all our rubbish ourselves. This meant a weekly trip to the tip for all our recyclables. These used to take up a disproportionately enormous amount of space in comparison with the size of our living quarters. In some cases our lifestyle added to the amount of the recyclables we were amassing. We couldn't store large amounts of milk, for instance, so we would accrue loads of the smaller plastic bottles.

The non recyclable rubbish we bagged up every day and offloaded into various rubbish bins. By the time we had been on the field for a few months I had gained an expertise on every rubbish bin we regularly drove past or encountered. Many bins only have small apertures, so I honed in on those with open tops and became a loyal Morrison's customer as a result solely because of their generous bin allowance.

Now we are back in a kind of civilisation and our rubbish is removed for us. Every Tuesday a lorry comes and takes away our kitchen waste and recyclables. Alternate weeks are shared between landfill refuse and garden waste - and it's greatly to West Devon District Council's credit that it places more priority on disposing of recyclable material than landfill. Despite this emphasis though, I would still estimate that much of my landfill rubbish is packaging in the form of film wrappers and the like.

Since recycling became more popular, and in some towns and boroughs compulsory, there has been speculation about where our plastic bottles etc actually do end up. There have variously been reports of them ending up in landfill sites in China or being dumped at sea. But I unearthed a BBC news report all the way back in 2007 that followed up three people's recycling and found that most of it does indeed get recycled in the UK and then resold here, which is great.

But despite this, wouldn't it be better just not to create the stuff in the first place? Leaving aside the landfill and pollution problems, creating packaging in the first place takes energy. If it is recyclable, it has to be transported sometimes hundreds of miles to undergo a transformation that takes further energy. If, as I do, you believe we should be trying to reduce the amount of energy we use, then creating stuff and then having to create an entire industry to dispose of that stuff, seems a little pointless.

Clearly, some things need packaging - fluids, for instance, would quickly get very messy without it. But do we really need so much of it?

To answer this question I am making a pledge, which is, that from this moment for the next 60 days I am going to attempt to supply our family of five plus dog and cat with nothing that comes in any kind of plastic packaging.

The more I think about it, the more I see difficulties. Do I, for instance, include plastic lids on glass bottles? What about cardboard that has been treated with a plastic film?

I also want to try not to change the way we eat too much - and crucially, I want to see how it can be done in an affordable way. It would be easier to do this if I could have an expensive veg box delivered twice a week and pop along to my high end, organic butchers every day for a choice cut of beef. But what I want to see is how far you can live an ordinary family life on a  budget and eschew plastic packaging.

I also intend, for the sake of balance, to recruit an expert to try and assess how much environmental saving I am making. Will I use as much energy, for instance, baking a single cake as buying a mass-produced one in all its film wrapping? How much better is cardboard, if at all?

I will keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile, I have to break it to the kids that I won't be buying any packets of crisps for a while.