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).

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.