Sunday, May 6, 2018

Homemade Calendula salve

Last year I received some calendula (also known as pot marigold) seeds from a friend, and decided to plant them at our fields. These bright, happy yellow and orange flowers do extremely well in our sunny Mediterranean climate, and they've added such nice colour to our garden, and are also a very welcome source of food for the local bees. 



Calendula flowers and little visitors in our garden

Calendula flowers are a useful flower to grow in the garden for further reasons though. The flower petals can be eaten, and can be used for example to garnish salads or cakes. They can be also be dried and then infused in oil, to be made into creams or salves. Calendula tinctures have a rich history, as its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties and usefulness in treating dermatological issues have been known for a long time (something which today also has been shown by scientists in the lab). 



Calendula flowers come in a variety of shades of yellow and orange

As our calendula beds burst into flower, I decided to harvest around 30 flower heads for drying and salve making, and thought I'd share the process here. If you're interested in making some of your own and would like to get your hands on some calendula seeds, let me know as I've got plenty :) 

Calendula salve

Ingredients: 
- around 30 calendula flower heads 
- 250ml carrier oil (safe for skin), such as olive oil or sweet almond oil
- 110g beeswax 

Cut off around 30 calendula flowers. Leave the flower heads to dry on some tissue paper in a dry and sunny place for about 2 weeks. Turn them around every so often to ensure drying throughout and to prevent any mold from developing. 



Drying the calendula flowers

Once the petals are paperdry, pluck them off the flowerheads, and place in a clean and dry glass jar fitting around 250-300ml. To infuse the petals, they need to soak in a carrier oil that is safe for use on skin. Olive oil or sweet almond oil, or a mix of those, are good choices. The petals will need to sit in the oil for a few weeks. Place the jar with infused oil in a dark and dry place. 



Dried calendula flowers

Once the calendula oil infusion is ready, place a strainer over a glass bowl and strain out the petals, so that you end up with the infused oil. 

To make the salve you will need to add beeswax to the infused oil. I managed to get my hands on some beeswax from one of the local beekeepers I visited during a recent beekeeping course organised by Friends of the Earth Malta. 


Locally sourced beeswax 

Place the bowl with the infused oil over a small pot with simmering water to heat up the oil au bain-marie, Banju Marija in Maltese :) 

Chop the beeswax into smaller pieces and add to the bowl. Stir occassionally until all the beeswax has dissolved in the oil. 


Au bain-marie melting the beeswax in the oil 

Once the beeswax has dissolved completely in the infused oil, add the mix to a heatproof glass or earthenware container with a spout, so that you can easily pour the hot mix into clean and dry glass jars for storing the salve. 


Carefully pouring the hot calendula oil and beeswax mixture into glass jars

Wait until the mixture cools down completely and turns a lovely golden colour, et voila, your calendula salve is ready! The salve is great for everyday use to remedy dry skin, or to aid healing of minor cuts and burns. 




Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Plastic free on the go

After the first week of our Plastic Free October experiment - which for me was the hardest, as it meant figuring out so many things: where to buy something from, how to find an alternative, how to make it myself - we got the hang of our newly adopted plastic free lifestyle, at home at least. However, we are often on the go: at work, travelling or meeting friends for food or drinks, and this of course adds other challenges into the mix! That’s why I thought I’d share a bit about my experiences with preparing for those moments, as well as a few failures ;)

Preparation is key

On work days there are a few items that I will always carry with me: my water bottle, tupperware for food, and my own cutlery. I usually try to bring my own lunch to work, and take it with me in a tupperware, as well as cutlery and a plate if needed (or I use some from the nearby kitchenette). I try to also keep some snacks on my desk for those mid-morning or mid-afternoon hunger pangs, such as crackers with hummus or ajvar, and I usually bring a small box of nuts and some fruit with me from home (for bananas I even have a banana box protector case, so as to avoid those dreaded squashed-banana-bag-situations, you know what I mean!). In the case of emergency hunger attacks, the university canteen also offers some unpackaged snacks: cookies or Oh So Yummy bars (made with nuts and dried fruits). To make coffee in the office I use a French press, which is made with just the ground coffee and water. The coffee I buy in bulk (see previous blogpost) and bring in a glass jar to work. I keep a mug for tea and coffee at my desk, and also have a reusable coffee cup, in case I want to buy some coffee for take away from a cafe nearby or when I’m out for meetings or running errands.



Snack provisions for during the day: fruit, nuts & crackers with spread


Some days I don’t manage to prepare my own lunch, and on those occasions I usually buy something from the university canteen, the Food Faculty, or another cafe around university. At the canteen they usually serve everything in take-away boxes and with disposable cutlery. I always ask for my food on a plate and with real cutlery, and although I’m happy to report they always provide me with these on request, I think it is very sad to see the wastefulness of their operation. I sent them an email to ask why they cannot offer their food served on a normal plate with cutlery to everyone, and they replied saying that they are “mainly focused on a take-away / grab and go concept”. However, many students do not take their food away, but eat it directly then and there in the canteen. The Food Faculty staff did state that they “will definitely look into this and see whether we can have crockery and cutlery available for any customers wishing to use that rather than disposable”, which they have not done so far (2 weeks later), so I will follow this up and see if there are perhaps any students groups (KSU, Y4TE?) who want to collaborate to put some pressure on them.  

I take any waste I create at work or during the day home with me, usually in the tupperware container I have in my bag anyway (organic waste & paper to compost in our compost bin, glass waste to wash and reuse, or recycle).



Reusable coffee cup for take away coffee and French press and coffee supply 


My trusty Dopper water bottle 
As I explained in my first blogpost about our plastic free month, water is a tricky one in Malta. In October it is generally still very hot, so I usually drink 2 to 3 liter of water a day, and if you’re out all day that puts considerable strain on your back, or alternatively, you need to plan for how you will refill your bottle. Unfortunately, this is not so straight forward (yet!) in Malta, seeing as the water from the tap is not really palatable. At university there are some public refill stations, where you can fill up your bottle or drink straight from the fountain. Alternatively, I’ve asked at restaurants/cafe’s if I can refill my water bottle from their bulk drinking water source against a small payment (depending on the establishment this could be from their own Reverse Osmosis system, such as at The Grassy Hopper, or from large 19L H20 bottles, which many places use for their own use, for making tea/coffee or for their employees). In my opinion, installing more public drinking water sources and refilling stations (and simultaneously encouraging people to bring refillable water bottles) could be a great and easy way to reduce small plastic bottle use, seeing as locally many people buy several bottles a day, creating a huge amount of plastic waste that can be easily avoided.

Practice makes perfect

A lesson learned is how important it is to always keep in mind to think what could come with plastic when eating or drinking out, and to remember to ask for straws/plastic cutlery/cookies wrapped in plastic to be omitted from your order. I made a few small mistakes there unfortunately. For example, one day last weekend I was out with a friend and too caught up in conversation to notice that the iced coffee I ordered would come with a straw, and then the same thing happened later that day while ordering a juice… not my finest moments this month! There are also still some products I haven’t replaced yet, especially products I don’t use very often or a lot of, such as make-up. On a particular day this month I was feeling guilty about this, but then later realised that ultimately this is an experiment, I have to accept that it is not going to be perfect from the start, and there is no need to change everything all at once; it’s a process we’re going through and trying out, and this is only the start of a constant quest of looking for alternatives and ways to reduce waste. On the other hand, I am happy to report that we really have hardly created any waste this month! Most of the packaging waste we created was paper, which we tear up and add to our compost heap, and glass jars, which for the most part we wash and reuse at home. There have been some aluminium cans and some glossy paper (newspaper magazines for example) that still go with the recycling waste, and some glass bottles that we recycle separately, but that’s about it!

I am aware that most of my reusable containers (for example, my water bottle, banana box and tupperware) are made of plastic. The purpose of this experiment was to cut out single use plastic, and in terms of reusable items I am using what I already owned. However, there are many more sustainable and hard-wearing options available (e.g. stainless steel, glass or ceramic options) that I would certainly opt for if I were to replace any of the items I already have. From my research I found for example the following options:

Thanks for reading! I’m hoping to wrap up the experiment with a final blogpost next week with some reflections on this month, and looking forward to the future to see what changes we are planning to make permanently :)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Plastic Free October

A few weeks ago I took part in the National Cleanup Day in Malta. In one morning, more than 1300 people at different locations all over the Maltese islands picked up a whopping 2200 bags of garbage, of which more than 25% constituted plastic waste.


Inspired by this cleanup and the undiminishing stream of news about microplastics being found in our food and drinking water sources, I wanted to try for myself if it is possible to live a plastic free life in Malta. On October 1st I started a month long experiment: an attempt to live without single-use plastics (plastic bottles, packaging, wrappers, Tetra-Pak, etc.), together with my husband Chris and with my colleagues at Friends of the Earth Malta.


We started preparing in the weeks before, making a list of things we use and for which we would need to find a plastic free alternative, and places from where to get these things, asking for help online and visiting different supermarkets and shops to see what they have on offer.  


Veggies & fruit
This was the easiest step for us, as we already tried to avoid plastic packaging around vegetables and fruit as much as possible. We bring our own shopping bags, and have reusable cloth produce bags that are handy for smaller fruits and veggies, such as tomatoes. We normally buy from our local greengrocer or for organic veggies we go to Hames Sensi in Fgura, our nearest organic shop. I’ve never had a problem upon refusing plastic bags, and I’m sure your local greengrocer will quickly get used to your quirky behaviour :)


Grains and pasta
It took some running up and down the supermarket aisles and exasperation at the tiny plastic windows in most grain packaging, but actually there is quite a good selection of grains and pasta available in the supermarket. I’ve found different types of pasta, rice and couscous packed just in cardboard.

 

Examples of plastic free grains & pasta found at PAVI in Qormi
The health food section at PAVI in Qormi has a pretty wide selection of bulk products that they sell by weight from large containers. I found oats, quinoa and barley, which are bought in bulk paper bags by the store. I brought my own reusable cloth bags and the shop assistant was happy to use those and fill them for me. Their standard however is to fill single use plastic bags, a bit of a missed chance with the set up they have.


Using cloth bags to fill from bulk containers 


Nuts, seeds, legumes & dried fruit
In the same section they also sell other bulk products, such as dried beans (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, split peas, etc), dried fruits (raisins, dates, apricots, etc.), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, linseed, chia seed, etc.), and a variety of nuts (raw nuts such as cashews and brazil nuts, but also spicy nut mixes for snacking).



Chickpeas, oats, coconut, sunflower seeds, linseeds, cashews, cacao nibs and raising bought in bulk (from PAVI health food store and Theobroma - Raw Cacao Collective) 



Coffee & tea
A category of its own in my books :) For coffee I went to my favourite little coffee shop in ─Žamrun: C&M Borg (you can follow your nose to find it!). They have a nice selection of coffee beans (including an organic & fair trade variety) and can grind it for you then and there. The shop owner was happy to put my freshly ground coffee directly in the glass jars I had brought for the purpose. They also sell spices and nuts in bulk. For tea we’ve been drinking a lot of fresh mint tea as we have some prolific growing mint in the garden (and it’s delicious), but there are also boxes of tea that are just cardboard.


Dairy & eggs
For a while now we’ve been ordering some products from Barbuto, a company bringing organic Sicilian produce to Malta. We like to buy their eggs, which come in recyclable cardboard cartons, and yoghurt, which is my favourite so far available in Malta and comes in glass jars, which have also been put to good (re)use to hold nuts and seeds that I’ve bought in bulk. We’re buying cheese from one of our neighbourhood shops and bring our own container and ask them to place it directly in there. So far, so good, but I have a feeling this will be easier to do in a small shop, I think they might not allow it in a larger supermarket. In terms of milk we usually go for plant-based milks (oat, rice, coconut) but this has proven to be one of the more difficult things to replace as they all come in plastic lined Tetra Pak. Now that I have found a good place to buy oats in bulk, I’m going to try to make my own oat milk. I will report back about my experiences with that later this month!



Organic eggs in recycled cardboard cartons from Barbuto


Bread & crackers (and cookies!)
We have been baking our own bread on and off for some years. We have a breadmaking machine at home and it is actually so easy to make your own bread on a day to day basis. Once you get the hang of it you put all the ingredients together in less than 5 minutes, and if you use the timer, the bread will bake overnight and you wake up with the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread in the morning! Flour is easily found in paper bags. It is however also perfectly possible to buy fresh bread from a baker by bringing your own bag or using a paper bag. I love to have a crackers as a snack with some hummus or cheese. This proved to be a tricky one! All crackers seemed to come in multiple layers of plastic packaging. I finally managed to find one brand that is just packaged in paper: Wasa whole grain crackers (found at PAVI in Qormi).


Wasa crackers wrapped in paper


Of course at some point during the week we craved for a snack, so I cooked up a plastic free cookie recipe, with wholemeal flour, oats, cacao powder, cacao nibs, cashews, coconut flakes, sugar and coconut oil (you can find the full recipe below).


Water
This is a tricky one in Malta. Tap water is technically drinkable, but not very palatable. We normally use a Brita filter (activated charcoal filter that removes chlorine and reduces the hardness of the water), but the filter has to be changed once a month, and is made of plastic, and comes in plastic packaging. Alternatives are getting large 19L water bottles delivered at home, and although they are made of hard plastic and are reused, they still come with a disposable plastic cover. What would be the best is getting a reverse osmosis tap installed at home, but seeing as we rent, this is not really an option for us. We’re going to accept the small amount of plastic waste, and stick with our Brita for now.


Bathroom products
We are using solid shampoo (mine is coconut based and comes from Lush, and Chris got one with mint and green tea from our local Soap Cafe in Sliema). We’re using a bar soap for washing bodies and hands. We bought bamboo toothbrushes from Bam & Boo, which are made of bamboo and are packaged in compostable packaging. Unfortunately they do have to use nylon for the actual brushes, as in their words “the only 100% biodegradable option is pig hair, which is a very controversial material” (https://thebamandboo.com/pages/faq). Another difficult one was toilet paper, although it is paper in itself (and thus no problem) it seems to always come in plastic packaging! After some searching I managed to find an ecological brand that has compostable packaging. I just tore up the first packaging and added it to our compost heap, and am curious how long it will take to break down. Most household cleaning we do with simple vinegar and baking soda, which can be found in glass bottles and cardboard boxes respectively. We always use Earth Friendly dishwashing and laundry liquid from Core Green, and we have been informed that we can take them to be refilled once they’re empty, so although the containers are still plastic, they are hardwearing and will be reused. There are some other personal care products that we still need find an alternative for, such as toothpaste. In the coming weeks I am planning to try to source some ingredients to experiment with making some of my own personal care products from bulk products.


Toilet paper wrapped in compostable packaging


I never expected this experiment to go perfectly, at least not immediately. One week in, I’ve made a few mistakes, such as forgetting to tell a bartender to omit a straw in my drink, and ordering a bottle of water at a restaurant only then to realise they serve in plastic bottles and not in glass as in most establishments.



Our plastic waste from week 1: 2 straws, 1 plastic water bottle, 1 cap of bouillon powder and 1 plastic wrapper of cheese (gifted by friends who were not yet aware of our experiment :))


I am looking forward to trying out new things next week and would love to hear your thoughts, and whether you have any tips or questions! Thanks for reading!



Plastic free cookies


  • 200g wholemeal flour
  • 200g oats
  • 150 ml coconut oil
  • 100g desiccated coconut
  • 150g sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp linseed (ground up in coffee grinder)
  • 3 tbsp cashews (chopped roughly)
  • 6 tbsp cacao powder
  • 4 tbsp cacao nibs
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • ½ - 1 cup water


Mix all the dry ingredients together. Melt the coconut oil in a double boiler (au bain marie). Mix the coconut oil in, and add water until reaching a thick, doughy consistency. Make small balls and press flat on a baking tray lined with a baking sheet (or even better, a reusable baking mat). Bake at 175 C for 10-15 minutes.

Monday, October 12, 2015

My Grand Transport Experiment


Last week I undertook an experiment. Together with many other residents of the tiny little rock that constitutes Malta, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the traffic situation and the amount of time it was taking me to cover the distance between home and work. The Maltese Islands measure only 316 square kilometer, but are densely populated, with almost 450,000 inhabitants, most of whom get around by car: in 2014 there were over 300,000 registered cars. 

In the last weeks the already dismal traffic situation turned even worse. Every day I was confronted with the question what would be the best way to get to work. Take the car, because after work I would have a meeting in another town and I would not make it in time by bus? Go by bus, because I would not have to worry about finding a parking spot for the car? Take the ferry, because the bus would get stuck in traffic and take ages to arrive? By bicycle, because the ferry might leave late again? By car, because it might rain and it would be dangerous to cycle because the potholes in the road become invisible because of the water runoff? By ferry, because the traffic is even worse when it rains? By bus, because the ferry might not run because of stormy weather?



Day 1: Bus

Eager to do something and contribute to the current public discussion about the traffic issue, I came up with an experiment: use a different mode of transport every day of the working week to find the easiest and most convenient way to get to work in the morning, to show that there are alternatives to the almighty automobile. Every day I shared my experience with a different mode of travel on Facebook, including a photo and information on how long that day’s journey took, as well as a map showing the routes of my different travel modes: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zBF12IH_mqUE.k7RdbtxUlG3g  


Day 2: Car

On day 1 I opted for the bus. It arrived 15 minutes late and got stuck in traffic almost immediately. In total it took me 1.5 hours to get from home to work. I opted for the car on day 2. Even though I took the shortcut through Dock 7 to avoid traffic in Paola and Marsa, it still took me 1 hour and 15 minutes to arrive at work, and I actually got lucky and found a parking spot close to work immediately, something that sometimes can take another 10 minutes to achieve. On day 3 I took my bicycle on the ferry that runs every half hour between the Three Cities and Valletta, then took my bike in the lift up to Valletta and cycled from there to Gzira. I cycled all the way from home to work on day 4, again taking the shortcut through the docks and then passing through Marsa and Hamrun down to Msida, and from there to Gzira. On day 5 I walked. Not because I thought it would be the fastest way to get to work, but because I thought it might actually be faster than taking the bus or the car. And it was. In the table below I’ve compared the time, distance, cost, carbon emissions and calories burned of each transport mode, to give a complete picture of the pros and cons of each mode.

Transport mode
Time 
Distance (km)
Cost single journey (€)
Carbon emissions (kg)[i]
Calories burned[ii]
Bus
01:30
9.98
0.75
0.89[iii]
0
Car
01:15
9.85
0.82[iv]
1.54[v]
0
Ferry + bicycle
00:40
6.68 
(1.5 km ferry)
1.50
0.03[vi]
187
Bicycle
00:35
7.45
0.00
0.00
327
On foot
01:10
7.45
0.00
0.00
310



Day 3: Ferry + Bicycle

I was happily surprised to see that many other people are also shaking up their usual morning commute. The effects of this tragedy of the commons, whereby individuals act according to their own self-interest, but ultimately contrary to the best interest of the whole group have now become too profound to ignore. Some people look to the government to provide a solution, and there is talk of new roads, a better bus service, alternative transportation over water, changing work or school hours, the creation of tramlines, a light rail or even an underground system. However, none of these solutions, even though they might contribute to combating the issue in the long run, will provide a short-term solution to the current traffic nightmare.


Day 4: Bicycle

From my experiment it appears that cycling (whether or not combined with a ferry trip) is by far the fastest way to get to work for me. And I believe it can be a solution for many others. Of course there are obstacles to cycling, physical ones such as the many hills and narrow streets, and emotional ones, such as the fear to participate in traffic on a bicycle, and yes, the mad looks other road-users, friends or colleagues can give you. I must admit that I sometimes resort to cycling on pavements or against the flow of traffic in one-way streets. This is not because I have a slight disposition for disobedience (or well, maybe it is), but largely because of the lack of infrastructure that allows one to cycle in safety. In many other countries, one-way streets actually allow for two-way bicycle traffic, and pavements are abutted with bicycle lanes. I believe the creation of dedicated bicycle lanes and routes would be a tremendous support for the many people who would like to try out cycling, but are too afraid of partaking in traffic in the current infrastructural setup, and for sure they’re easier to construct than an underground system!


Day 5: On foot

It was so exciting to change up my morning routine every day. All transport options have their good and bad sides, but irrespectively, they all bring something fresh and rewarding: the bus ride that allows you to read another chapter of the book you’re engrossed in, the shameless singalong during a car commute, the invigorating feeling after morning exercise from a bicycle ride, the fresh breeze and beautiful vistas of a trip by ferry through the Grand Harbour, and the unexpected finds and meditative pace of walking a route you normally traverse at higher speed.

After all, there is no one size fits all. And this is maybe the best insight that my experiment provided for me. Not every day is the same, and to keep your morning commute interesting and accommodate the specific needs you have on a certain day, it pays off to experiment with different solutions. I encourage you to try it out as well! Who’s next?






[i] CO2 emissions of the journey, based on estimates and averages (sources below). Not taking into account manufacture or disposal of vehicles.
[ii] Values for walking at a brisk pace and for cycling at a moderate pace. Source: http://www.myfitnesspal.com/exercise/lookup
[iii] CO2/km (in kg) for bus travel per passenger: 0.0891 kg. Source: http://www.aef.org.uk/downloads/Grams_CO2_transportmodesUK.pdf
[iv] Price for fuel and annual car license fee. Not including insurance or maintenance costs.
Price for 1 liter of diesel in Malta in October 2015: €1.28/l. Source: http://www.globalpetrolprices.com/Malta/diesel_prices/
9.85 km = €0.61
Car license fee: ~€150/yr = €0.41/day = €0.21/single journey. Source: http://www.transport.gov.mt/admin/uploads/media-library/files/POL%2033.pdf_20150109135518.pdf
[vi] CO2/km (in kg) for ferry travel per passenger: 0.02254 kg.  Source: http://www.seat61.com/CO2flights.htm#.VhpA9-ztmko