MORE ON TEA BAGS!!!

My last post about teabags generated so many emails and quite a bit of comment that I thought it worth following up…

The general theme was supportive (phew!) but a large number of people told me they had already switched to plastic free teabags.

The depressing news is that there is no such thing. Unfortunately for us and for the kind of clarity which is in such short supply these days, it’s perfectly legal for companies to use the phrase “plastic free” because this, in food labelling terms, is understood to mean plastics made from petroleum and you’d be forgiven for thinking this meant all plastics. It doesn’t. It’s verbal obfuscation. (If you’re new to the blog, PLA and bioplastics are fully explained in my last post so I won’t bang on about it again.)

The kind of packaging that makes you think it’s free of ALL plastic …

My friend Liza in particular told me she was drinking tea made by a local company which was most definitely labelled as being “plastic free”. Ho hum, I thought.

So I wrote to them. Here is our correspondence.

ME Hi. I’m looking for a plastic free teabag and yours sounds just the thing. Can you tell me what material you use to heat seal the teabags?

THEM: Hi, thanks for contacting us. Our tea bags are made from corn starch and when they are heat sealed together it is the starch/glucose bonding together. The tea bag itself has no taste or aroma and does not affect the great flavours of our teas. Our time out tea bags are packed with high quality unground ingredients, packed into a clear bag made from eucalyptus and both are biodegradable/compostable. Our tea boxes are printed with vegetable ink on a mixture of recycled and FSC card.
We even use a brown paper parcel tape which uses a potato starch glue.We hope this answers your question and would love for you to try our lovely teas. 

ME: Thanks very much for your reply, it was kind of you to go into so much detail.  I am just concerned about one thing – by corn starch, I understand that this is the base material used to make bioplastic, or PLA.  Is this correct?  And my research seems to point to the fact that whilst bioplastic is fully biodegradable, it is not actually compostable.  So if you live in an area which doesn’t collect food and garden waste, it has to go into the general rubbish, because it won’t properly degrade in the compost heap (if you’re lucky enough to have one!).  I found this on the Yogi Tea website.    “Our envelopes are also made of FSC®️-certified paper, but unfortunately we have to use small quantities of plastic “for heat sealing”. This is very painful for us, but for reasons of quality and hygiene and the current state of technology and research, there is no other option. Even if other tea competitors may claim the opposite, we feel openness and transparency towards our customers. A 100% plastic-free, heat-sealed tea bag outer packaging is currently not available on the market.”  Can you clarify?  I’m just looking for a teabag that contains no plastic at all – petroleum based or bio!  I do realise that companies like you are fallling over backwards to try and minimise plastic pollution, but if I can’t find a completely plastic free teabag, I shall move entirely to leaf tea.  

THEM: “Hi, no problem getting back to us, we always like chatting tea and we have worked so hard at removing all plastics from our tea ranges. You are correct that corn starch is also known as PLA but it contains cero (sic) plastic and no petroleum. It does prefer to go into an industrial compost i.e. council collection and unfortunately in this county we are still waiting for this to happen, but we compost at home ourselves and if we find a bag not fully composted when we turn out our compost for use, we just pop it back in and wait for the next year. If it does go into landfill at least there is no plastic to leach out into the ground and landfills don’t bury the products immediately, which means the tea bag has a slight chance to start breaking down with the microbes found on site. There is also a chance that the general waste will go to an incinerator, which makes energy, and these teabags won’t have any plastic released into the atmosphere. If you are still not convinced with corn starch tea bags, we have a large selection of loose teas available, all packed in natureflex, which is 100% plastic free material made from fast growing  Eucalyptus trees and they seal without any plastic and are 100% home compostable.”

No names, no pack drill

Look, they’re obviously a really nice company trying very hard to minimise their impact so I’m not going to name them. But all the same it’s disingenuous to claim that their packaging is ‘plastic free’, so I won’t be buying any of their tea any time soon. Meanwhile, hats off to Yogi teas for their honesty.

And it’s still leaf tea for me, because I keep finding shredded teabags in my compost from at least three years ago that have failed to decompose…

Photo by an_vision on Unsplash

In other exciting news…

Yours truly was approached earlier this year by London South Bank University. Would I be willing to give a keynote speech at one of their series of Sustainability and Climate Action Events?

Well, dear readers, I was speechless. Which is not a useful state to be in when asked to actually open your gob and say something half intelligent.

However, when I’d picked myself up off the floor and apologised to the dog (she gets a fright when I fall over), I said yes. So I shall be opening the three day event on 4th November at 9.30 am – put it in your diaries and tune in. It is of course virtual like everything else during these covidious times but that does make it a lot more accessible for everyone. Here’s the link – it’s free to register and attend. https://www.lsbu.ac.uk/whats-on/consumption-economics-education-wellbeing-event

And I have to admit that I’m very excited as well as nervous – actually, I find it difficult to think of much else as the date draws near. Eek!

And last but SO not least…

The beloved friends, Piper and Barney, love harvest time as it means the occasional fat juicy rat to chase out of the grain barn.

Mystery credit

For those of you who read this blog online, I would like to thank Ian Wagg on Unsplash for the lovely picture of teapickers in a tea plantation. For those of you who read this in email form, you won’t have a dickybird what I’m talking about as the header photos are not published on the email versions. No idea why.

TEA BAGS

No, I can’t believe it either. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic and I’m writing about effing teabags, for heaven’s sake!

But I must write about them, because as far as I am aware, almost all teabags are made with one kind or plastic or another, and millions of teabags are chucked in the compost every day.

Just to give you an idea, the annual tea consumption in Ireland averages out at 4.831 POUNDS of tea per person, and here in Britain we’re not far behind, glugging down 4.281 pounds each every year. I personally make up for at least 14 non-caffeine drinkers, as I ADORE tea.

And it’s not just tea – think of all those little sachets of herbal teas! Millions and and squillions and gazillions of bags containing plant matter of one kind or another are disposed of daily. And they look as though they should decompose, don’t they?

Ay, there’s the rub.

Barry’s tea. Irish of course. Beloved by my Beloved.

How tea bags are made

There are various types of tea bags, but the most common is the pressed teabag – in other words, those square or round ones you’re most familiar with.

Here’s a great video from the BBC showing the manufacturing process – if you can’t be arsed to watch it, here’s the low down. Abacá, or Manila hemp, is mixed with water into a sludge. So far, so organic, if you forget about the air miles clocked up getting the hemp to the factory. Oh, and the millions of gallons of water.

This sludge is mixed with flock made from a specialist plastic which is rather like cotton wool. Then a layer of wood pulp is added, having been broken down by yet more uncountable gallons of water. This is to stop the teabag dissolving in your mug.

Finally, it’s dried at 100º and stretched to a fabric just 0.1mm thick. How on earth anyone dreamt it up in the first place is beyond me, but I admit it’s an impressive piece of technology so long as you don’t give a fig about the consequences.

Some of these tea bags use a staple to close the top of the bag but they still have a seam that needs sealing and that’s why they need plastic. The plastic is the seal.

Oh, and don’t forget that white tea bags are only white because the paper is bleached. Nice.

Silky pyramids

I had no idea how many different makes of tea were out this till I started researching. This was made from biodegradable corn extract and it’s so pretty I had to include it. Available from Madame Flovour.

The other type of tea bagis the silky pyramid and a lot of the more poncey teas use these. They’ve become increasingly popular due to the fact that they’re not full of the dusty old shite that inhabits many a teabag. You can actually see the contents and the quality tends to be higher.

The catch is that they’re rarely made of silk. It’s all a question of words… Silky just means “like silk” and this can mean that the teabag is either made of plastic or of what is called biodegradable plastic. And I will tell you more of this when we’ve gone through the process of…

…Heating plastic

Plastic has a very high melting point, so boiling water doesn’t melt it. But there is a second temperature called the “glass transition” temperature – this is far lower than the melting point. This is when molecules in polymers start to degrade. Just because you can’t see it breaking down don’t mean it ain’t happenin’!

Most teabags are made from PET or food grade nylon. PET’s long name is polyethylene terephthalate but don’t try saying that after three glasses of wine. The ‘glass transition’ temperature of PET is a great deal lower than boiling point. But we boil water for tea… so you can be absolutely sure that those polymers in your tea bags are not leaching molecules into your cuppa?

No, I don’t know what the glass transition rate of food grade nylon is, there’s only so much science I can take in without my head swivelling and my eyes starting from their sockets. But I do know that …

  • Micro- and nano-plastics are causing increasing concern for their long term effect on the environment and the food chain. It’s worth quoting Aussie businessman and marine ecologist Andrew Forrest again: Nanoplastics… the very, very small particles of plastic, carrying their negative charge, can go straight through the pores of your skin. That’s not the bad news. The bad news is that it goes straight through the blood-brain barrier, that protective coating which is there to protect your brain.”
  • According to a study published by the American Chemical Society, “steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature (95 °C) releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of the beverage”.
  • We now know that plastic never goes away. Even when it finally seems to disappear, the tiny nano plastics will always be plastic.

Is biodegradable plastic the answer?

Don’t get me wrong. Bioplastics are a huge improvement on petroleum based plastics, but they’re not without problems, and for all sorts of reasons.

  1. Biodegradable isn’t the same as compostable. Compostable means you and I can chuck it into that pile of grass clippings and it’ll break down. Biodegradable can mean all sorts of things – most bioplastics will ONLY degrade in the high temperatures of industrial composting facilities. There aren’t nearly enough of these, thus bioplastics frequently get sent to landfill. With the best will in the world, can you be certain that your biodegradable teabags will actually BE degraded?
  2. Some bioplastics (polyethene terephthalate or PET bioplastics) aren’t actually biodegradable. They are recyclable, but they will never become compost.
  3. Bioplastic MUST be disposed of properly – and this means separately. If it is mixed up with actual plastic it can contaminate a whole batch, rendering that batch unfit for use. This buggers up the whole recycling process. Then where does the batch end up? In our old friend, landfill, making methane. And when you carefully put your bioplastic interdental picks in the recycling, can you be certain the council dump has the kind of sophisticated machinery needed to sort it from the plastic tray that came with your strawberries?
  4. According to a study at the University of Pittsburgh, biopolymers are worse polluters than ordinary plastic, because of the use of agricultural fertilisers and pesticides. And of course, they take up land which could be used to feed people.
  5. According to the same study, “biopolymers exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.”
  6. A corn starch teabag can still make its way to the sea and into the belly of a fish before it degrades, tricking the poor old fish into feeling full when it’s not. That’s how fish starve to death.

Even the admirable Clipper Teas who have tried so hard to green up, and who are very open about their packaging materials, use a biodegradable plastic called PLA (polylactic acid) to seal their teabags. Now PLA is not toxic – except during manufacture, and very few of us are exposed to that process. However, it has a very low glass transition temperature and I question whether PLA is as stable as we would like:  “even things like a hot car in the summer could cause parts to soften and deform“.

Hmm. A fresh brew is considerably hotter than a hot car!

But I cannot stress this enough. I am not a scientist, and I have to work very hard to get through some of these studies. I may get things wrong, and I welcome any contributions and information from people who genuinely understand these things.

Don’t say I don’t bust a gut researching for my readers. These fish shaped teabags are HAND SEWN and available from Etsy. 3 for £7.99 apparently it’s a motivational gift!

We can’t uninvent plastic…

…but we can stop using it when it’s not necessary. Tea bags are not necessary. If you drink actual tea, you can convert back to loose leaf tea just as soon as you’ve finished that last teabag. Same with herbal – there are plenty of loose leaf infusions on the market now.

Look on the bright side – loose leaf tea is almost always a higher quality. The stuff in teabags is usually dust and “fannings“.

You don’t need to worry about a gobful of leaves either. The greatest teapot ever invented is the Chatsford which has a handy basket thingummy to put the tea in. I bought mine 34 years ago in Scotland and the delightful lady said, “You’ll never have bad tea from a brown teapot” and she was right.

This is not my teapot, I snuck the pic from the Boulder Tea website because I couldn’t get a shot of my teapot without a silly reflection of me with camera… But this is the very model. Marvellous.

I’ve lectured enough. Time for a cuppa. Stay well, stay safe.

Meanwhile, apologies again for the long silence. I find it very difficult to get going in these strange times, and sometimes the science needed to write these pieces makes my head hurt.

Here she is!

My consolation. Miss Maris Piper Desirée Boulangère Keane O’Neill. Her mother was Chips, her Grandmother was Tayto. She comes from a long line of very distinguished tubers.

JUNK MAIL & JUNK BUMF

Do you regularly get a load of junk mail? If so, it might just be your own fault.

There seems to be three kinds of junk.

  • leaflets from local marketing, like pizza leaflets/Chinese takeaway menus/local garage adverts etc that occasionally get shoved through the letterbox. Less so these days, I’m happy to say.
  • stuff that companies send you after you’ve purchased something from their website. Once a company has your address, you can be driven demented by months of unwanted catalogues trying to persuade you to buy more socks or another set of drill bits…
  • those awful packs of gubbins wrapped in plastic that fall out of the weekend newspapers. You know, the kind that advertise things you never knew you needed, like heated knickers for the hard of hearing, or electric hoes for unwanted beard growth.

The first is easy to stop. A notice saying ‘NO JUNK MAIL’ on the front door works wonders. The second is easy to stop, but it requires you to Do Something About It. The third I’ve got an idea about. Press on, dear reader, it’s at the end.

But really, it is all shit that NOBODY needs. Whole forests are sacrificed for it, it frequently arrives in plastic envelopes, and I hope by now you know how I feel about superfluous plastics.

My feelings on superfluous plastics.

Most people don’t read their junk mail, according to my research (which, er, involved asking a few people I know… très scientifique, non?) They chuck it in the recycling or, worse, in the bin where it goes to landfill. Landfill, the scourge of our age.

Whilst it isn’t our fault if companies send us their advertising material the minute they find out where we live, it is up to us to do what we can to make them stop sending us their wretched and unwanted blurb.

Basically, if we keep getting the same stuff month after month, year after year, we have only ourselves to blame.

So do NOT throw those catalogues out. Here’s how to stop junk mail. It’s the tried and trusted Keane method.

Purchase a nice fat marker pen. Any bright colour is good. Then write the following words on the envelope:

RETURN TO SENDER.

NOT KNOWN AT THIS ADDRESS.

PLEASE DELETE FROM RECORDS.

Then pop it in the post box. It might not work the first time, but repeat your action and the stream of unwanted mail will eventually dry up. It’s the equivalent of unsubscribing.

It’s always worked for me. I once moved into a new house in London and I counted 33 names receiving post at my address. 33!!! Great piles of mail daily plonked onto the mat. Catalogues, mainly. One by one, I wrote the above instructions on the envelopes and posted them back. A year later, the problem was gone.

One company, however, was particularly persistent and clearly didn’t take any notice of politely worded instructions. So, in addition to the above instructions, I stuck a large white label on the back of the plastic sheath and wrote the following in bright red marker pen:

“I DO NOT WANT THIS SHITE COMING THROUGH MY LETTER BOX.

WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO GET THE MESSAGE?”

They stopped sending after that.

(Feel free to substitute the word “garbage” for “shite”. Not everyone loves my Portsmouth/Dublin lexicon.)

In addition…

I now even send back catalogues I would enjoy (in other words, flowers, bulbs, seeds) unopened. Well, most of them. I confess to drooling over the Sarah Raven catalogues. No-one can be perfect all the time. But there really is no excuse for companies sending out endless hard copy when virtually everything these days is online. I mark them ‘return to sender’ on the front, and on the back I write (in green, of course!):

PLEASE STOP SENDING HARD COPY. I’M ALREADY A CUSTOMER – LET’S START THINKING ABOUT THE PLANET.

Back to that newspaper junk…

I’ve had an idea about a cheap way to protest. I’m going to buy 100 x 1p stamps, and I’m going to post those bundles back to the newspaper. They’ll have to pay the excess. I shall write the following on the back:

UNWANTED LANDFILL

And if LOTS of us start doing that, it might make a difference. Anyone fancy trying it with me?

Meanwhile…

I very much hope everyone out there is staying safe, and that you aren’t suffering too much from the effects of Covid. For myself, I have no idea when we’ll get back into the theatres again, it’s looking pretty dire for my industry. But I keep busy (distraction is vital for sanity!) and will be posting more regularly again now that life is cautiously returning to something resembling what we once knew.

And before I go, here’s a picture of my darling little dog, Piper, after an exciting roll in the hay.

Straw dog with a question in her eyes. “Where is my tea?”

Photo credit

Thanks to Pau Casals on Unsplash for the header photo. It won’t appear on the emails, but it does appear on the website and I try to credit all photos properly.

STORAGE

Do you have storage? If so, there are four possible reasons you might be shelling out for space in which to stow your stuff.

  1. You live in a teeny-tiny home and genuinely need to fish stuff out on a regular basis. In which case you are forgiven.
  2. You are moving house and need a place to stow your furniture. In which case, your storage arrangements are no doubt temporary.
  3. You are a criminal and need somewhere anonymous to stash your AK47s, ill-gotten gains and victims. In which case, stop it.
  4. You have too much stuff.

Okay, I’ll concede – you could be someone who has to attend a huge number of fabulous social events where photographers jostle to snap you on the red carpet, and thus you need extra space to store your innumerable evening gowns. In which case, you still have too much stuff.

Let’s be clear. The kind of storage I’m talking about is

  • personal storage, not work stuff that you need from time to time. And no, I’m sorry, drug-smuggling and gun-running are NOT proper jobs. Stop it right now.
  • the kind of storage you pay for, not the boxes gathering dust in your loft/under your bed/at the back of the garage.

Storage drains your bank account and blights the country with horrid buildings. Endless empty spaces that contribute nothing to the wellbeing of the country. Here’s one.

Wouldn’t it be nice to stop enriching real estate developers who build these kind of excrescences?

According to their own website, Big Yellow Group, Britain’s largest storage company, has 100 sites in the UK. Their revenue for the end of year March 2020 was £129.3m. And there are plenty of other big players, such as Safestore, LoknStore, Public Storage, not to mention all the sheds, garages, farm buildings leased out to people with Too Much Stuff.

Yep, there are literally thousands of storage spaces, their owners only too willing to take your money to rent you – what? Empty space.

These buildings cover the country with yet more concrete where nothing will grow and nothing is made. Once the building has been built or adapted, maintenance costs are minimal. Jobs are few and low-status. These are businesses that produce a big fat nothing – only revenue for investors.

So while you’re stuck at home, use your Covid captivity to start going through some of your excess and popping into boxes to deliver when the charity shops open again. Empty that storage container and discontinue payment.

And please… don’t go out and replace it all with more stuff. I know the government wants us to shop our way back to economic normality, but it wouldn’t do us any harm as individuals if we were to buy less but better than rush out to fill our houses (and containers) with more tat.

Oh, just a quick request. Don’t drop off all your donations on day one of the charity shops opening, because I’ve got about 42 boxes already packed and ready to deliver that day.

And finally…

Sorry for the second long silence. I’ve been loth to bombard you with my enthusiasms and obsessions when you’ve all got quite enough to think of with lockdown and Covid.

And for no reason other than sheer sentiment, here’s a picture of Piper, my constant companion, having a rest from gardening a few weeks back. She thinks Covid is MARVELLOUS because I am at home all the time instead of touring. Thus she can happily nod off in the flowerbed instead of maintaining her usual vigilance to check if I’m getting the suitcase down again.

Poor Pipes, she has no idea that I’m secretly planning to tour again. God knows when, but we must hope.

Dog between delphiniums, a perfect choice on a hot day.

Meanwhile, stay safe. And pass this on.

PEAT or PEAT MOSS

Garden centres are opening, wey hey!

First though, it’s been a longish old time since I bothered you all with my efforts to persuade you to a greener, less wasteful lifestyle… Apologies if you thought I’d given up on this. But quite frankly, apart from the fact that I’ve been drooping mournfully about the place like an ageing tulip, I’ve also felt somewhat reluctant to foist my blog on a world grappling with this coronavirus mullarkey. Haven’t you all got enough on your plate without me droning on about waste?

And then there’s the constant cloud of discouragement that hovers, ready to consume me. On good days, I get a ton of things done, other days I can’t lift my arse off the chair till 4pm. Then I hurtle about the place, trying to make up for the hours of dazed indolence. Much like many of you, I suspect, I wonder where I’m going to get any energy… and whether it would be any use to have any energy in the first place… and what I would use it for were I to find it…

But there IS going to be a world beyond coronavirus, although it will not be the same as the world we knew a couple of months ago. We need to keep working towards that. The climate crisis isn’t going away, even if it is getting a break while we stop burning so much fossil fuel. So let’s try and look ahead with hope, and plan with determination.

Meanwhile, the garden has been saving me, and as garden centres cautiously open up again, it is to the garden I turn for SYDN inspiration. Lots of you are keeping busy the same way. Heck, my pal Adèle who is not one of nature’s gardeners (and lives in an upstairs apartment) announced that she was planting up pots and window-boxes with gusto. If she’s gardening, it’s a good sign that the rest of the world is too.

So before you start ordering bags of peat, let’s just look at the cons and cons.

(Incidentally, it may well be that you all know that we shouldn’t be using peat in the garden. I thought everyone did, but a quick chat with my nephew’s well-educated and clever wife made me realise that not everyone knows how BAD it is to buy peat. We’re constantly bombarded with information and we can’t take it all in.)

I had to learn a new skill to draw on this photo. Ooh.

Leave peat where it is!

Why?

  • Peat bogs are brilliant at storing carbon, and we are finally beginning to realise that the more carbon dioxide in the air, the worse it is for planet earth and all its inhabitants. This from Natural England – “Globally peatlands store approximately double the amount of carbon that is stored in all the world’s forests, an estimated 550 billion tonnes.” In fact, they store TWICE as much carbon as all the forests in the world put together..
  • It takes many thousands of years for a peat bog to form, and yet it can be destroyed in decades.
  • Peat bogs are incredibly abundant in wildlife which is specially adapted to that particular environment: a complex ecosystem all its own.
  • Peat bogs are essential for managing floodwater. And it rained like billy-oh all winter. It flooded too, and far too often those floods are caused because peat bogs have been degraded. Upland bogs in particular retain water which is then slowly released. This reduces the flow of water downstream and minimises the risk of flooding. I don’t need to remind you that there has been an awful lot of rain and flooding in past years. Wouldn’t it be nice if that stopped!
  • There has been enough destruction and degradation already. Germany, for instance, has drained or destroyed almost all its peat bogs.
  • The National Trust makes the excellent point that peat is a great archaeological resource, keeping “a record of past vegetation, landscapes and people”. Think of all those mummified peat bog people

But I want to grow azaleas!

I know, I know, this is not an azalea, it’s a rhododendron. But it was such a nice photo by Brian Taylor on Unsplash

A good number of popular plants will only grow in acid soil, and peat is acid. Rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, camellia… all gorgeous and highly desirable. And even I have to admit that the charm of preserving a dead body for centuries in a peat bog is not as attractive the prospect of planting a glorious rhododendron to hide the gas tank.

So the first thing you should be aware of is that if you live in an area that has alkaline soil (like me), nothing you can do will change that. Even if you’re as rich as Jeff Bezos, you can employ any number of folk with diggers to remove your topsoil and replace it with peat moss – but it will eventually revert. And your lovingly planted camellias will fade and die.

If you’ve moved into a new area and spring in your neighbours’ gardens reveals a resplendent palette of bright rhododendrons, then you can (a) feel safe in the knowledge that you can plant them in your garden too and they will prosper and (b) improve your soil with an excellent alternative, namely coir. More of which later.

My garden. No peat. The hot pink in the centre isn’t a camellia, it’s Cretaegus “Paul’s Scarlet” – yep, common old hawthorn to most of us!

But I only want a couple of bags!

Yeah, you and thousands of others. According to Dianna Kopansky, the UN Environment peatlands expert, the world has lost 35% of its peat bogs since 1970. I can do no better than quote from the UN website itself.

When drained or burned for agriculture (as wetlands often are) they go from being a carbon sink to a carbon source, releasing into the atmosphere centuries of stored carbon. CO2emissions from drained and burned peatlands equate to 10 per cent of all annual fossil fuel emissions.

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/peatlands-store-twice-much-carbon-all-worlds-forests

And the brutal truth is that the horticulture industry – both here and in the rest of the world – still relies far too heavily on peat as a valuable addition to their growing mediums. Amateur gardeners account for about two-thirds of the peat consumption in the UK. Commercial agriculture (eg. mushrooms, lettuces) and landscaping account for the rest, golf courses in particular…

And peat use is sneaky. You’ll find it in some of those bags of topsoil you buy, and in some of the bags marked ‘compost’.

Only if the bag is marked “PEAT FREE” can you be certain that you’re not contributing to the degradation of our peat bogs. Which brings us neatly back to the subject of…

COIR!

Look, no plastic! And a 5 Kg bale will expand to 70 litres when rehydrated! I call that a bargain. (And great IT skills for drawing on the picture.)

Coir is the waste product of the coconut industry. Once the delicious coconut ‘meat’ has been harvested, the long fibres are removed to make matting, ropes and excellent little scrub pads. This leaves the short fibres and dust which, for centuries, coconut workers piled up into great mounds, unused – until one day someone had the bright idea that this waste product would make an excellent compost.

And it does. It absorbs water more quickly than peat, and does just as efficient a job at helping to break up heavy soil.

Of course, it isn’t without problems of its own. One thinks of the travel miles, the plastics used to bag it up, and the heart sinks. Really, nothing is better than your own home-made compost but that’s not always possible and coir is at least renewable and thus sustainable.

(Incidentally, it’s not the only substitute for peat, but this is not a gardening blog and you can search for these things yourself.)

But just in case you’re tempted to plant azaleas in coir-filled pots all round your garden, I have to warn you that they won’t prosper as coir is a perfect pH – neither acid nor alkaline. For more about the benefits of coir, this is a very useful article from finegardening.com.

Frankly, if you want some drama in a pot, roses are a much better bet. They flower when you are likely to be outside having a barbecue, unlike azaleas which are very dull once they’ve finished flowering in spring.

I swear to you, I grow this rose in a pot. It’s called Fellowship, and it’s the divinest thing you ever saw. Move over, azaleas, this beauty flowers in June and July.

Thanks

To you for reading this, especially if you pass it on. And please stay safe and stay healthy.

And thanks also to Tomas Robertson from Unsplash for the photograph at the top. This will be mystifying to those of you reading this in email form. For some unknown reason, WordPress sends the emails without the top picture. Ah, the vagaries of technology! Anyhow, if you’re interested, it’s a beautiful and evocative picture of a boggy Scottish landscape with a ruined croft. And huge thanks to Unsplash for providing free pictures, without which this blog would be unaffordable.

Finally, my dog, Piper, declined to be photographed as we are in mourning for Nigel.

(For readers in other countries, Nigel was a hugely popular golden retriever who faithfully padded after his friend, Monty Don, week after week on Gardener’s World. His sudden departure this week made the national news and me cry.)

So here’s a picture of a Great Spotted Woodpecker that came to my birdtable.

How beautiful is he!

SHOPPING…

“What??? Shopping???” I hear you cry. “Has the woman lost her wits? SHOPPING? None of us is shopping now, in case you haven’t noticed, you great lummox!!!”

Well, of course I had. But firstly, I hope this finds you all in full health, and living the quiet life.

Strange times, eh?

We’ve all been upended by this ruddy coronavirus, haven’t we? I’m at home now having got 2/3 of the way through a theatre tour which was of course cancelled, or rather, postponed. But to be quite honest, I’d started to feel heartsick with worry for my old man. So I’m surprisingly relieved to be home with the people I love, preparing for what looks like a long siege.

And so are most of you. It’s not been too bad this far, apart from the occasional clutch of alarm when some twazzock comes and stands right behind you in the queue at the chemist – and then coughs… Yikes! But modern communication means that we can stay in touch with family and friends and my WhatsApp groups have been extremely busy with all sorts of hilarious nonsense.

But we are going to have to change our lives, and one area we can change is in our constant desire for the acquisition of stuff. Listen, I’m not oblivious to the joy of a new dress, buying a pretty antique vase, or bringing home a souvenir from abroad. However, especially in the light of the present circumstances, it seems a rather shallow pleasure.

Can we learn to live without shopping? Can we learn to only buy when we need, and to buy quality over quantity? Few of us will have the money to purchase anything for the next while, so can we make it the habit of a lifetime?

Dahling, don’t you just LOVE all those classy bags????
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Shopping as a pastime

We’re encouraged to think that shopping is a lovely way to spend the day. Hmmm.

I live near an excrescence known as Bicester Village where you can get wispy little designer frocks in a size zero reduced from £3000 to £1500 and other high end “bargains”. Honestly, Bicester Village is full of Shit You Don’t Need! People come in droves and at Christmas, the queues down the A41 are shocking. Coachloads, families in cars, minibuses from other parts of the UK. Imagine what the traffic is doing to the air, all that fossil fuel being burnt! All that pollution!

Bicester Village, strangely empty because I took the photo on 21 March before we went into lockdown but clearly, business was right down even then.

I’ve been there – reluctantly – to get the odd gift. Am I lucky in being able to say that going to Bicester Village brings me no pleasure? I think so but…

The rise of designer shityoudon’tneed…

There was, I think, a massive turning point in the 1980s when the French designer, Philippe Starck, looked at the old toothbrush and the workaday lemon squeezer and thought, “Mais regardez cette vielle chose, c’est terrible!” Or something along those lines. And lo, squillions of these gadgets became (and continue to be) an ornament to all fashionable bathrooms and kitchens.

Sweetie, it’s simply iconic!

Suddenly, everything had to be designed, re-thought, beautified and made stylish.

Especially us. Magazines urge us to make ourselves over, to rethink our living spaces, to order that stylish kettle, the latest iPhone, an Arne Jacobsen egg chair. We must purchase new and fashionable table linen, Christmas china for once-a-year Yuletide glory, 50s retro furniture., etc. Throw out that brown furniture belonging to your grandmother! Buy new towels to match your tiling! Heaven forfend that you should have last season’s bag / trainers / eye-shadow!

And where will your old stuff go? The charity shop – okay, good. Bonfire – hmmm, not so good. Landfill – BAD.

Temptation at every turn

Even online, we’re greeted by Satan and his harpoon with every click. Amazon suggests “other books I might like”. Sahara, which sells lovely clothes for older women who resent beige (me) and don’t want to blend into the background (me again), sends me regular emails featuring photos of my kinda clobber. It takes strength to resist. I don’t always succeed.

In the chemist, BOGOFS and other bargain offers tempt the most hardened shopper. Ooh! I think, 3 supersize bottles of body lotion for the price of 2, must get those! A year later, I’m still working my way through bottle no. 2.

At the supermarket, tempting delicacies attractively packaged and arrayed at eyeline level to distract me from my carefully written shopping list. Even when I stick to the list, my old man subverts my good intentions when he “just happens to pass M&S” and stocks up on dainty morsels in plastic trays. He’s mad for those fishy mousse thingies, so we end up with a fridge groaning with grub, and me grouching about waste.

And at this very moment, the fear of empty store cupboards has led people to madly shop for loo roll (grr) and food, much of which is expected to be thrown out as people have bought far too much fresh food.

Chatting last Friday to the stallholder of a local market stall (a judicious 2m apart, I hasten to add) he said, “You wouldn’t believe how much people are buying, at least 3 times more than usual. Dunno how they’re going to use it all.”

But shopping gives us a kick!

Much has been written about how the brief rush of pleasure we get from shopping can become addictive. I’m not going to go into it in depth here, but here’s a nice summation from the Priory website. (The Priory is an addiction clinic in the UK.)

When we make a purchase, our brain releases endorphins and dopamine. For some, this momentary pleasure can lead to compulsive shopping, as the instant reward and motivation to re-experience the ‘rush’ starts to outweigh self-control and practical financial considerations.

Oh, the pleasure of shopping doesn’t last.

But debt lasts…

Today, Sofology the sofa shop is offering interest free credit on purchases over £500. That’s today, 27th March 2020, when the world is in meltdown and people are losing their jobs and their income right left and centre. Here’s a bit of blurb from the website.

We don’t think you should have to wait or save up before you can feel at home on a sofa you love. With our range of payment options, you can select the option that works best for you, and order the sofa of your dreams today.

I only mention Sofology because their current advert annoys me. This sentiment is echoed all over the internet and what’s left of the high street. Why should you save up for something? If you WANT it, you MUST HAVE it! You’re ENTITLED!

Because you’re worth it!

Somehow, during the 67 years I’ve been breathing the air on Planet Earth, shopping has transmogrified from buying what you needed to ordering what you deserve.

When I was a child, you might need anything from a loaf of bread to a new outfit for a wedding, but if you didn’t need it, you didn’t purchase it. Now, thanks to L’Oreal grasping the zeitgeist with ruthless brilliance, we think we are worth it – whatever “it” is. We accumulate stuff simply because we imagine it enhances our sense of self-esteem. My very glamorous mother had one lipstick, I have five. Some women have many more than that. Young people are encouraged to buy ultra-cheap clothing, wear it once and then chuck it. OMG, can’t be seen wearing the same thing twice!

The visual blight

Our desire for stuff has blighted our countryside with vast distribution centres the size of towns.

Each of those small yellow blobs is a huge truck. I lost count of how many of these buildings like this there are in Magna Park, Milton Keynes

Where are we supposed to grow crops?

Our desire for stuff means our homes are full, so our towns are desecrated with storage units.

Appropriately, the colour of the rape flower.

Is this really how we want our towns to look?

Our lockdown opportunity

So now we’re all holed up at home in unsplendid isolation, and shopping has been transformed overnight into a risky necessity. Wouldn’t this be a really good time to address our habit of acquisition, and abandon shopping for the sake of shopping? And when we come out of our siege, could we make sure we don’t rush headlong for the shops and start the whole damn cycle over again. After all, you can bet the Burghers of Calais didn’t make a dash for Carrefour the minute Edward III spared them in 1346. They’d have gone home to their families and thanked providence.

End notes.

I hope everyone stays safe. Thanks to all the new people who’ve joined. I shall try and keep an optimistic tone to this blog as life is tricky enough as it is. Some are saying that this pandemic could slow climate change quite considerably, proving that it’s an ill wind and all that mullarkey. But I think we’d all rather that it wasn’t this particular ill wind!

If you’re reading this on the website, the photo at the top is by Erik Mclean on Unsplash. If you’re reading this at home, there’s no picture at the top. Don’t ask me why, blame the vagaries of WordPress.

Unattributed photos were retrieved from t’internet by yours truly by cunning means of screenshot and cropping.

Please continue to share and do tell your friends about the blog, but only if you’re standing 2 metres away.

Obligatory animal pic

Piper loves going for a drive. She won’t be doing that for a bit.

She’s a bit of a back seat driver, if I’m honest.

THE SHAHTOOSH

Now for something COMPLETELY different. We’re all working hard to reduce our plastic, and our carbon footprint, and now and then we need a break from being virtuous. Besides, I don’t want this blog to get too preachy, so here’s a piece of SYDN I hope you never have to worry about. And I think it’s pretty fascinating.

Okay. Think of the softest pashmina you ever felt. Nice, wasn’t it? Soft, warm, and oh so caressing. Imagine if it was quite a bit softer, softer and finer. That’s not a pashmina, it’s a shahmina, made from even finer fibres than a pashmina. Gorgeous. OMG, can something so fine be THAT warm?

Now imagine it finer and softer still. As fine as the thinnest, flimsiest silk and yet warmer by far. Finer even than the softest vicuña woven for the King of the Aztecs. So fine that a huge shawl can be pulled through a pinkie ring.

That, my friends, is a Shahtoosh. The word gossamer was surely invented to describe it. Made from the finest fibres in the world, plucked from the beard and belly of Chiru – a Tibetan antelope. You have to be a master weaver to be able to handle those unbelievably delicate fibres. Naturally, rich people love ’em.

The innocent Chiru on the Hoh Xil Natural Reserve in Tibet. Before we all give up tourism, I would love to travel out there with https://www.tibettravel.org/ to see these animals on the roof of the world.

I’m rich, I want one!

Sorry, you can’t have one. It’s illegal to sell or even own one in most countries. This is because the Shahtoosh is the textile equivalent of the Elephant’s Tusk, or the Ocelot Fur Coat. Just as it takes more than one ocelot to make a coat, it takes between three and five hides to make one shawl. You see, the endangered Chiru has to be killed for its coat. No, the fur can’t be sheared or combed, the animal must be killed. Deaded. Deprived of life. Just for its underhair.

Why can’t you breed them?

The Chinese have tried, but it’s been a complete failure. The Chiru have very poor survival rates in captivity. They breed at incredibly high altitudes which humans cannot manage for long periods of time. It’s life at these high altitudes which makes them develop their super-thick coats, and they need an enormous amount of space to forage for food in such a hostile environment.

You can actually see these remarkable animals in Tibet if you go with tibetravel.org

Any relaxation in the law makes it a great deal harder to enforce the prohibition on making, selling or owning a Shahtoosh. Not even the finest forensic examination could tell whether the shawl came from a wild or captive animal. Just to clarify – pashminas and shahminas are mainly made from the hair of the Changthangi, or Cashmere goat. This is perfectly acceptable because the goat sheds its coat in spring and can be combed. The Shahtoosh can only be made from the fleece of the Chiru and this animal cannot be sheared or combed. And as these animals are protected, they must of necessity be poached.

So legalisation and herding would undoubtedly lead to a rapid decline in the population of the Chiru because forensics wouldn’t be able to tell if the animals were from herds or from poaching. The bitter irony is that captive breeding stimulates poaching. Why go to all the bother of trying to raise herds and live in such an inhospitable climate, when you can just take a smart hunting rifle with telescopic sights and pick off a few animals to ake home?

Ok, it’s a niche piece of SYDN. But one day, you may come across a Shahtoosh and I guarantee that you will recognise it now you’ve read this far.

My encounter with a Shahtoosh

We had a very wealthy old lady round to supper, a friendly acquaintance of my other half. I didn’t know her well, but she’d donated heavily to a charitable project he was involved in, and supper was our way of thanking her. As she was leaving, I picked up her ‘shawl’ to hand it to her, and my jaw dropped. It almost floated into my hands. I was horrified.

“How many animals died for this?” I said, without thinking.

She had the grace to look embarrassed.

“Don’t ask!” she said. “I didn’t know when I bought it.”

There was nothing more to be said, so I handed it to her quietly. She was our guest, she was in her very late 70s, she’d been incredibly generous elsewhere, and I wasn’t going to bring five rare antelopes back to life by haranguing an old lady.

She’s now been dead for some years, and her Shahtoosh probably went to the charity shop. I hope someone got it for a tenner and it’s been keeping them warm all these years later. It would be horrible to think that five antelope died for their coats to end up in the tip.

But I shall never forget that wonderful, ravishing fabric. I felt like Edmund in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe when he eats the White Witch’s Turkish Delight. I wanted – no, I lusted – after one of my own. But I will never own one.

Still being made…

Yes, I’m sorry to say they are still being made secretly in Kashmir because they are in high demand. Rich people love them – you know, the kind of people who instal a gold toilet in their bathroom. And it’s MUCH easier to get away with than a mink coat because (a) not many people know about Shahtooshes and (b) they just look like a beautiful fine bit of fabric.

Sometimes human beings are so disappointing.

What you will save…

Online research tells me that these tender stoles sell for about £4,000-£5,000.

As lovely as any antelope…

My beloved companion, wee Piper. Going a bit grey like her mother.

Footnotes

Picture credits. I couldn’t find any snaps of Chirus on free websites, so I snuck the pics from the https://www.tibettravel.org/ site. And no, I don’t get a kickback if you do book a holiday with them! The scarves at the top are mine, some are pashminas, some aren’t, but I needed something colourful.

I am researching something serious for next time. Keep the faith, and keep sharing.

WILDLY UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST PLASTIC BAGS

“But I’ve got my Bag for Life!” I hear you cry!

Yes, yes, of course you have. Me too. In fact, I’ve got seventeen Bags For Life, because I keep forgetting to bring them to the supermarket so I have to buy a new one, simply proving that I’m a forgetful twazzock of epic proportions.

In fairness, plastic bags are only the teensiest, tiniest part of the problem of plastic pollution, but we have to start somewhere.

And they’re everywhere. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive list of single use bags you can stop buying. You have to hand it to the packaging manufacturers and their marketing departments, they’ve worked REALLY hard to make us think we need different bags for every occasion!

Sandwich bags. Lordy Bill, there are so many other ways to keep your sarnies fresh – in a wax wrapper. in foil or greaseproof paper – or even a plastic box you can use again and again.

Snack bags. Yes, there are such things and they are entirely separate and distinct from sandwich bags. Big Bad Bag Corp would like us to believe that we need BOTH snack bags AND sandwich bags. OMG, imagine the confusion if you put your snack in your sandwich bag and your sarnie in your snack bag! You might eat your BLT double decker thinking it was a piece of fruit and then you’d have nothing left for lunch! Gastronomic confusion would reign supreme!

Pictures of fruit on the bags are there to make you think you’re taking the healthy option.

Freezer bags. These are not particularly practical. They flop in the freezer and either stick to the surface or wrap themselves round whatever they’re sitting on. Boxes stack so much better and can be reused indefinitely with care.

Stoopid.

Ice cube bags. Yes. Ice cube bags. I ask you. ICE CUBE BAGS!!! Which you have to tear and shred to get the ice out and then throw away… Oh puh-leeeeeeeeze! Use an ice tray!!!

Slow cooker liners. Whaaat? People actually COOK their FOOD in a PLASTIC BAG, without wondering what petrochemical-type contaminants might be leaching into their food? Yikes. The packet says “Keep pots clean – seal in flavour”. Accept it, making stews means you have to wash the pot afterwards. Just soak it overnight, or leave it on simmer full of water for a while, and that should make the crusty bits come off the side.

Roasting bags. Again, another ruse to sell you something completely unnecessary in the belief that somehow it will save you time and effort. It means you miss all the gorgeous, gooey cooking juices under the meat. If you want to protect the top of the dish from burning, use a saved butter wrapper and mould that round your chicken or yer chops or whatever. And if you really want to seal in your roast and keep your oven clean, you can make a ‘bag’ from a large piece of greaseproof paper. Eezi-peezi.

Wastepaper bin liners. Are you a hotel? Probably not. And even if you are, stop it. Put a piece of newspaper at the bottom of the bin if you must. I hate the way hotels put those flimsy liners in their bins. Thousands and thousands of these get dumped every day with just a tissue or a couple of bits of cotton wool in them. If hotels equipped their chamber staff with rubber gloves and a damp cloth it would be a great deal better for the environment. (I now travel with a plastic box for my waste cottonwool etc., and instead of using the bins in hotel rooms, I take it home and dispose of it there.)

Dog poo bags made of plastic. No excuse, chaps, been here before. You can get biodegradable bags everywhere in which to pop those plops.

Customs bags. You know, the ones they make you put your costmetics in to go through the machines at the airport. Get one, and keep it for next time. And the next. And so on.

What about big bin bags?

As to big bin bags, I’m resigned to having to use them. The hazards of being a garbage collector are enormous – they never know what foul stuff they’re picking up, whether it’s diseased, or full of rodents, insects, toxic waste, hypodermic syringes, broken glass etc etc… So until such time as garbage collection is mechanised, bin bags are vital for providing at least a small level of protection for these workers.

But most plastic bags are unnecessary, and if you need to be reminded of how plastic never disappears from the planet even when you can’t see it, read my piece on cling film/Saran wrap. If that doesn’t give you the holy horrors, I don’t know what will.

Nice and short this time, eh!

All photographs taken by Yours Truly, most of them in Sainsbury’s of Bicester. I think we can all agree that I’ve done a MARVELLOUS job. Okay, they’re a bit shite, but frankly I haven’t yet got used to the embarrassment of going round shops and photographing things like a weirdo.

My current challenge

I’m on tour, which means eating microwave meals at the theatre every day. I’ve challenged myself to do this without single-use plastic and am reporting my progress on my Twitter feed. It’s quite bothersome but because I am such a geek, I’m rather enjoying the challenge. @DillieKeane if you’re interested. Also @ShitYeDontNeed.

And finally… Here’s a picture of a hound, but not Piper this time as she is fed up with me for going on tour and refused to pose. Sorry, Pips, I shall be home the whole summer and we’ll make hay (and definitely jam) together and you can play hide and seek in the dahlia forest.

Meanwhile, this is Barney, our beloved Labrador, in the Drug Chair. It’s called the Drug Chair because there are strange aromatic medicaments in the upholstery that cause whoever sits there to go to sleep during interesting television programmes which means the rest of us have to watch them again.

Barney, an 11 and a half year old puppy, here asking you to admire his mighty tackle. He’s such a bloke, really. Even still, he is the nicest, gentlest, huggiest chap in the world.

ALMONDS…

Or mainly, almond milk. Yes, that surprisingly pleasant milk-substitute beloved of Clean Eaters everywhere.

As more of us drift towards a meat-free life, it beckons temptingly. You’re almost elevated to dietary sainthood the moment you whisper with a shudder, “Oh! I don’t do dairy, do you have any almond milk?”

Yes, it’s hugely popular, not just with vegan converts and bearded hipsters, but those unlucky enough to be lactose or dairy intolerant. When I was young, no-one had ever heard of lactose intolerance. I suppose people just suffered in silence and wondered why a milky coffee made them fart like an ancient Morris Traveller.

However, there is nothing virtuous about almond milk. Nothing at all.

I have no idea if this is almond blossom, but it is very pretty and livens up the page a bit.
Photo by Jorge Alvarez on Unsplash

Are Californians drinking dirty water?

On average, it takes 12 litres of water to grow one almond. 12 litres! Almost as bad as avocados

Most of the world’s almonds come from California, so there’s quite a carbon footprint too. According to the Almond Board of California, and they should know, the state “produces about 80% of the world’s almonds and 100% of the U.S. commercial supply. Almonds are California’s #1 agricultural export.”

It’s also the most extensively irrigated crop in the state, in spite of the fact that poor old California has had an appalling drought since 2010.

All trees that produce crops of any kind need a constant supply of water, so when there’s no rain, farmers irrigate their crops with water taken from wells drilled deep down into the aquifers. These are layers of permeable rock containing groundwater.

In normal times, aquifers are refilled with rain. But after 10 years of drought, the higher aquifers are empty. So farmers are drilling deeper and deeper. This means the quality suffers. Why?

  • Salinity increases the deeper you go. Salty water isn’t good for the soil and it’s not nice to drink.
  • In some built up areas, groundwater basins are contaminated by industrial chemicals.
  • Away from the towns, nitrates from fertilisers often pollute local drinking water supplies. This should worry people a great deal more than it does as it can have severe health consequences: hypoxia/hypoxemia***, cancers and thyroid problems.
  • Near the coast, salt water flowing into yet more aquifers doesn’t help crops – and again, it’s not good for drinking. 

It gets scarier. In an op-ed for the LA Times, the distinguished scientist and hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, claims that California is at risk of running out of water.

What drought really does…

We think of drought this way – it dries up what we can see in front of us – brown grass, curling leaves, failed crops etc.

What we don’t realise that it affects the land in a much more frightening way.

There is huge subsidence in the vast San Joaquin Valley, where most of the almonds are grown. The aquifers are slowly collapsing deep underground, and when aquifers collapse, so does the ground we stand on. Land that sinks – no matter how slowly – is dangerous for roads, bridges, levees, buildings – infrastructure of every sort.

This photo, snuck from the Water Education Foundation, shows how far the land subsided in 25 years.

In turn, this makes the mountains ranges running alongside the valley higher, and this increases the likelihood of earthquakes.

Remember, this is in California, which you might call Earthquake Central. This massive subsidence been identified as the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Wow.

In fairness, this is a process that has taken 150 years of sucking the water out of the ground to create farmland out of marsh. But the rush to cash in on the almond milk boom has led to almond acreage in California increasing by over 80% in the decade between 2009 and 2019. Trees need much more water than cabbages.

Thus groundwater depletion is happening quicker and quicker, which means the land is sinking faster and faster, “nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) per month in some locations“. (NASA).

Eek. Eek, and thrice eek.

You can’t grow almonds without bees…

Almonds are actually fruits, and fruit trees need bees for pollinating.

Just in case you’ve forgotten what a bee looks like, here’s a beautiful close up by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash. Marvel at the pollen baskets on its back legs!

Let’s hear from the Almond Board again.

  • About 1.6 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California almond orchards at the beginning of the bloom period to pollinate the crop.
  • After almonds, honey bees move throughout the United States, pollinating over 90 other crops and making honey.

This is what’s known as migratory beekeeping, and it leads to bees being stressed.

Actually, the term, “migratory beekeeping” makes me cross because it’s wilfully misleading. Bees are most definitely NOT migratory, In normal circumstances, they feed on a wide variety of nectars.

What it means in reality is that hives are trundled from crop to crop as each needs to be pollinated in turn. While the bees are being driven, perhaps hundreds of miles, they’re in closed cartons, unable to fly.

In addition, transporting them from one monoculture to another deprives them of a balanced diet. Almonds are grown in great monocrops – acres and acres of nothing but almonds. Come on, you’d get sick if you ate nothing but chocolate for three weeks and then moved on to baked beans for a month, followed by a fortnight on eggs. This is basically what is required of these “migratory” bees.

Shunting them about the country also increases the risk of spreading parasites and diseases, not only amongst managed hives but also among the depleted wild bee populations they might just encounter round the edges of these monocultures.

In fact, all crops are more effectively pollinated by a mix of honey and wild bees than by honeybees alone. But there are no other foods for the bees, so the farms rely 99% on these “migratory honeybees” with virtually no extra input from other pollinators.

Slave bees, more like.

And then there’s insecticides, upon which almond growers are so dependent. A study last year which looked at the toxic combination of insecticides and fungicides on bees in almond orchards reported the following:

  • increased larval mortality,
  • increased deformed brood
  • a significant number of colonies completely dead.

The decline of bees around the world should make this a matter of deep concern.

A busy bee going about its business on what might be almond blossom – who knows? Marvellous. We must fight their corner. Photo by Zuleika Sequeira on Unsplash

While I’m at it, let’s not demonise farmers. They’re making a living, and many of them are at their wits end as to how to improve farming. The safety of bees, the absurdity of monocultures and the use of groundwater needs to be dealt with by legislation at state and national level.

But St Gwynnie of GOOP drinks it!

Yes, the fragrant Gwyneth Paltrow, the not-as-vegan-as-you-thought goddess with the noxiously idiotic lifestyle website GOOP, apparently has a smoothie made with almond milk every morning – whether or not she is detoxing! So it must be the superest of super things evah, hey?

A random smoothie. Nothing to do with the Blessed Gwynnie. But is that her face appearing in the lime??? Photo by Alina Karpenko on Unsplash

Oh yes, the internet is awash with any number of clean eating influencers promoting the virtue of replacing dairy with almond milk.

So how nutritious is it?

Go to the Alpro website and you will find this list of the benefits of drinking “almond original”. My comments in italics.

  • Naturally Lactose Free
  • 100% plant-based
  • Vegetarian (er… isn’t that the same as 100% plant based?)
  • Naturally low in fat
  • Naturally low in saturated fat (Surely that’s just a subheading under “fat”?)
  • Low in sugars (But since you can get unsweetened almond milk, I think we can assume the these sugars are added…)
  • Rich in Fibre (except all the nut is taken out)
  • A source of calcium. Contains vitamins B2, B12 and D.
  • Source of calcium and vitamins D and B12. (Sorry guys, you just said that!) Vitamin B12 contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.

Search as I might, I can’t find any evidence to say it’s any better for you than old-fashioned cow’s milk or, for that matter, any other non-animal milk.

Lactose intolerance and veganism

Some people are lactose (dairy) intolerant. Others hate the milk industry and make a moral choice not to drink it. For both groups, doing without milk is a serious nuisance. And this isn’t a perfect world and frequently we have to make quick choices that we know aren’t good for the planet.

But if you do decide to change from almond milk, and I hope you do, oat milk and coconut milk seem to be a wee bit less damaging, even though they come in Tetra Paks which are much less eco-friendly than you might think. (But that’s for another time…)

Better still, make your own almond milk. Buy almonds grown near you (they’re grown in Australia, Europe, Asia and North Africa) and get bottling. Here’s a handy recipe to start you off. Chefs don’t like the pulp, I gather, but there are any amount of recipes out there for using the by-product. Or use it to make an exfoliating scrub.

My final question…

Is it worse for me to buy cow’s milk delivered in a glass bottle which will be used again and again (yes, we still get ours like that!) or a Tetra Pak of almond milk that goes on fouling the planet long after you’ve finished with it?

Ahh, life is so complicated!

***Request for my brother Frank

*** Frank, am I correct in stating that hypoxia and hypoxemia (low oxygen in your tissues/blood) will occur when the mechanism by which methemoglobin is formed is affected, “thereby inhibiting the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood“? My research seemed to point to this.

Note to the rest of you. My brother Frank is an eminent surgeon, and therefore a proper Man of Science. And yes, I could have asked him before publishing, but I don’t think it hurts to show my areas of ignorance and my efforts to redress this! And besides, I’m off on tour any minute, and want to get this out there!

Meanwhiles, welcome to all of you who have joined recently, and thanks to chuttersnap on Unsplash for the photo of the almonds at the top. Honestly, without the wondrous Unsplash’s free photos, this blog would be very dull to look at.

But of course, the best picture of all is the one of the… yes… wait for it… the One And Only beloved Mutt who has a starring role in this blog.

Quite rightly. She is a very eco-minded Person-Dog as she loves to lick the plates in the dishwasher before the cycle starts, thus extending the life of the machine. She firmly believes that hygiene is less important than waste.

What a clever dog!

BELOVÉD ECO-MUTT!

Her Ladyship in wistful mode, gently fantasising about killing rabbits.
Photo by Jaimondo Sharpe, who is Piper’s second favourite human bean after me.

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

My last post garnered a few useful recommendations from my excellent readers, so rather than sit on them for a few months I thought I would pass them on. Strike while the iron is hot. Thanks to you all, it’s bloody brilliant to know that there’s a host of other eco-worriers out there doing their bit.

Ecodoggie!

As my dog is a person-owner (I wouldn’t dream of saying it the other way round, I am Piper’s slave!) I have been using bio-degradable poo-bags for some years. You can get scented ones but that is er, gilding the, er, lily, surely? I never have trouble getting them from pet shops – but Shirley Jordorson recommends the ones you can get on ecovibeuk. Just make sure that they are entirely plant-based.

Ecovibe dog poo bags. Most website photos these days are protected so you can’t grab ’em and use ’em again. Since I’m sending you to their sites with no advantage to myself, I have no compunction about taking a screen shot instead, and cropping it.

However, even the best and most bio bags don’t necessarily degrade within a year if they’re buried beneath vast piles of other garbage at the dump. You need light and oxygen to compost stuff, so disposing of the bag correctly is important. Do try and use those dedicated dog poo bins. The contents are taken to commercial composting facilities where high temperatures ensure both the bags and Rover’s whoopsies are properly composted.

Better still, if the Mutt poops in your back garden, have a shovel handy and tip it down the loo without a bag. Yes, really.

Soap!

Catherine Read recommends her pal’s website, Sea Green Soap which looks delightful. At the moment, you have to go through her Facebook page to purchase, but it’s worth having a peek especially as she has some doggy soap on offer!

This looks pretty and marvellous.

Last year, I went with my two NSDs (Non-Step-Daughters) on a morning’s soap-making course. I have to say it’s not rocket science. It was good fun, but the main thing I remember was that our teacher wouldn’t let us use the rose oil as it was too expensive. Never mind, we’re still using the soap and it’s lovely.

My lemongrass and parsley scented soap with poppyseed scrub! It smells gorgeous, actually.

Scourers

My old pal Kristin got in touch to sing the praise of coconut fibre scourers. “They’re fantastic. Biodegradable, non-scratch etc. Highly recommend them.” Thanks Kristin! I am ordering some from Ecovibe – plus a number of other interesting, non-plastic cleaning products I’ve discovered on their COMPLETELY BRILLIANT website. And they plant a tree in Australia with every order over £30.

And just in case you’re wondering, yes, those sponge scourers are made from polymers. In other words, plastic. Get with the coconut scrub pads, folks!

As always, worth buying in bulk…

Gas gas gas…

Finally, Shirley recommends switching for your power to Good Energy. They don’t supply you with 100% renewable, they actually have rather a complex system of trading energy, but the thrust of what they’re trying to do is to significantly increase the amount of energy we use from renewable sources. And they own a number of wind and solar sites.

Shirley says, “The supply costs a bit more , but they are a lovely friendly company, who take the time to give you a personal service.”

Frankly, the energy companies we’ve used in recent years have been so appalling I would be happy to pay a bit more. I’ll see what the old man thinks.

Plaudits

Time also to give praise to some companies that are doing wonderful things. Shirley reminded me of 4Oceans (I’m wearing the bracelet right now, thank you so much, I was incredibly touched to get it!) They’re taking plastic from the oceans and making bracelets from them – mind you, they have taken so much plastic from the oceans it’s hard to imagine that there are enough wrists in the world to wear the squazillion bracelets they could make. Still, it’s a heroic and laudable enterprise, so hurrah for 4Oceans.

Shirley’s second valediction goes to Revive Eco, a little Scottish company run by two young Scots lads who are turning waste coffee grounds into a substitute for palm oil. I’d never heard of them but will be keeping an eye out for them in future. Have a gander at their blog – they’re pretty amazing and I wish them huge success.

More…

I’ve had lots of recommendations on the Facebook page and also in comments here, but this is long enough already and I want to get this out to everyone before I head to Memphis… yes, ratcheting up that carbon footprint. But it’s not for a holiday, it’s for the funeral of my other half’s brother, and sometimes you must put family before good intentions and worthy behaviour. So this comes from a very sad version of me, because he was a lovely man and we were enormously fond of one another.

And you haven’t had your picture of the dog!

Here she is looking moodily hirsute on a recent visit to Hammersmith.
Picture by Jaimondo Sharpe.

Till next time, then. xxxx