Saturday, 11 May 2013

Cutting back on stuff

So, I have been talking about reducing the ‘stuff’ that we consume for the last few posts. You can see the list of stuff for the month of April here. I would encourage anyone reading this to try recording all the stuff they buy or are given for a month, and how much they spend. I think you will be surprised at the amount of small items that may otherwise go unnoticed. The question for me is, could I cut this list by 90%?

There are some things that would be really easy to not buy. For instance, I purchased the fibre plant pots, partly because I was impatient for empty loo rolls to become available, and partly because I was trying to grow sweet corn for the first time and the packet suggested using fibre pots because they don’t like having their roots disturbed. To be honest I am not impressed with them and regret buying so many. (The sweet corn are not looking impressed either :-( ) The plastic seed propagator I also didn’t like, because when I tried to get the modules out as a tidy cube, ready to plant on, the compost just crumbled away, offering no protection to the root. What did I do wrong? Plant label tags, seemed like a good idea, because I am normally too lazy to mark where my row of seeds are, making it difficult to weed, but really with a little fore-thought I could have saved wooden lolly sticks. Part of this spend is experimental and also I got caught up in the panic of having a late spring.

I have stepped my gardening up a notch this year, and gardening stuff was 20% of my spend for the month. Some of the items I bought can go on being used year after year, like the seed tray and water sprayer, so really this is an investment in a new venture. I did in addition use a whole host of pots, plastic tubs, egg boxes, leftover seeds, seeds that came free with other stuff and saved potatoes, so the vast majority of what I have used has been free.

The dwarf apricot tree, is rather expensive and also a bit of a risk in our climate. My view is that if I am going to invest in a long-term exercise like growing trees, then I need to give myself the best start possible. I am quite happy to buy 10 pak choi plants from the market for £1, but if I am going to dedicate part of my garden to a tree for the next 10 to 20 years, then I would rather buy it from somewhere I trust. I purchased a cheap ‘dwarf’ plum tree from the local DIY store four years ago. It certainly isn’t dwarf, has only had plums on last year, and then every plum had a maggot in it. This spring there has been no blossom, so it is going to get the chop.

Looking at all the compost and mulch, and how expensive it has become, I am going to put a lot more effort in with my own compost. Currently I have a shop bought compost bin, which seems to act more like a wormery. I bought it to reduce the rubbish that I discard, and for that purpose it is excellent. I can load it with 10L of vegetable peelings a week and the magic worms just make it disappear. When it comes to emptying out the ‘compost’, it is just one wet mass of worms and twigs that sticks to my fork. Once the worms wriggle away there is little ‘compost’ left. I think I need to have an open compost bin allowing more air in, so will be knocking something up this summer with some scrap wood or just reverting to having a pile of compost.

In addition I pay the council £15 a year for a brown wheelie bin for garden waste, which they collect every 2 weeks and then I buy cheap sacks of compost from them. This makes no sense does it? Pay to take it away and pay to get it back! I’m not sure I have the space to compost everything, but I will certainly be looking to reduce the amount that goes in my brown bin from now on.

I missed the Transition seed swap this year, but I will make sure I attend next year and will also do their workshop on seed saving, which should help reduce the seeds that I buy. I think I will always need to buy some grit to dig into the soil, whenever I reclaim a new area of my garden for growing. It is such heavy clay soil and really poor drainage. Does anyone know of a free alternative?

If all goes well, then next year’s spend on the garden front could be significantly reduced, to just garden gloves, grit, half the compost, a few packets of seeds and some baby plants, costing about £23 and saving 75%. What I like about this is that I have determined the skills I need to learn to take the next step towards sustainability in the garden.

The largest chunk of spending for April was on kids clothes and shoes. Out of the 8 clothes that I bought for my youngest daughter last month 2 were made in Sri Lanka, 2 in Cambodia, 1 in Portugal, 1 in Tunisia and 2 in Bangladesh, where the tragedy of the collapsed garment factory is still unfolding, and over 1,000 people have lost their lives. (You may wish to support the People Tree’s Rag Rage petition to get compensation for the Bangladeshi workers and improve health and safety conditions.)

Four or five years ago my oldest daughter saw a documentary on TV showing young boys, the same age as her little brother, working long hours sewing sequins on clothes. These clothes were then sold in one of the discount chain stores in our town. It was upsetting and we gathered up all the clothes that we had bought from that store and gave them all to charity. I have tried to buy at least some ethical clothes since then, but it is difficult. Does anyone know where I can find fair-trade school trousers for instance?
My youngest daughter gets a lot of hand-me-down clothes and we hardly ever buy new clothes for her, as we did this month. She was so thrilled with her new clothes that I felt somewhat guilty. She does normally enjoy getting given clothes too. This week I have written to the clothing retailer to ask about their ethics. I am sure they will tell me that their clothes are made in reputable factories, but at least my letter might add to the pressure to improve working conditions.
Transition Town Totnes have produced a LocalEconomic blueprint for their town, which really explains the importance of buying local and keeping money and jobs in the local community. The main output of Loughborough used to be hosiery and garment making, but it has all gone now. I will hunt around and see what locally made clothing I can find. Meanwhile I have a plan to make the hand-me-down clothes more appealing. Firstly I will make sure I wash everything before I even show it to the kids. That way, the clothes won’t smell differently, or of other people. Next I will do some measuring against existing clothes, so I know what is likely to fit and what should be put away until later. My kids get fed up of trying things on quite quickly, so this may save some rejections. Thirdly I will make more effort to repair and make good any items that I can, and even re-use material to make something else.

I already wear clothes until they are worn out, and buy ethically where I can. But I can’t stop my kids from growing! This area of my spending, which is 55% of the month’s spend, is going to be tough to crack, unless I can start making clothes again....

As for the other 25% of my one month spend, they are oddballs really. For instance the laundry basket should last me another 10 years, before it needs replacing. (I did have dreams of making one out of wicker though, before my husband just went out and bought a plastic one!) The old peg rack only got broken because the dog was stealing socks from it, so we have moved it out of her reach. The dog only needed an injection because she broke her leg a couple of months back, so hopefully that won’t be needed again. I buy half a dozen books a year at most, and mainly second hand. I am given books and I pass on my books after I have read them, which feels sustainable to me. The DVD is a one off and I will pass it on now I have watched it. There will always be sports equipment though. I have no plan for how to reduce this area of spending, I will just have to keep an eye on it.

I realise now that it would have been helpful if I could have tracked where all my stuff came from. This is because everything that is made outside the UK is never included as part of the UK’s carbon emissions. When we talk of China’s emissions rising, a large part of that is down to producing products for people in other countries. Our government sees it as China’s problem and takes no responsibility for the overseas coal-fired power stations that provide the energy for the goods that we ultimately consume. (You could also say the same about worker conditions and ethics, which are also out of sight and out of mind!)

If you have any more ideas of where I can cut back on stuff, then let me know.


  1. Hi Judy
    I've used those fibre pots in the past and not liked them at all. My husband "tidied up" my loo roll tube store so I had to buy tubes this year but I got the ones with no base in very similar to the free ones I'd been saving. I don't think my overwinter store will be removed again!
    I heard Terry Walton on gardeners question time say he grew parsnips in fibre pots but he chopped off the bottom - so I did get a few this year to try that idea - put some in half loo roll tubes too to compare.
    Plant labels - chop up plastic milk cartons or lemonade bottles - great, free labels

    1. Thanks for the tips Carol. I was actually thinking that I should have cut the bottoms off the fibre pots! All the beans in the loo rolls did great, so I will stick to them next time.

  2. My two composting bins are very successful and I have compost from them more quickly than my compost heap.
    I think you don't have enough dry stuff in your compost bin. Here are some of the items I add - shredded personal documents, torn cardboard, the contents of the vacuum cleaner, dog and human hair, hemp bedding from the chicken coop and kitchen roll (as long as it hasn't anything contaminating on it)
    If you are planning to grow organically, then council compost is not a good idea, as you don't know what's in it.

    1. Thanks June. I do add loo rolls, egg boxes and paper shreddings to my compost, but maybe not enough. Also I read that the nitrate in the chicken poo speeds the process up. Wonder if dog poo would have the same effect?

    2. Don't add dog poo to your compost bin! It contains cooked ingredients which can go mouldy and also all the other nasty things which pass through a dog!
      I think you can buy dried pellets of chicken poo!

    3. I forgot to say that Bob Flowerdew reccommends urine to speed up the composting process!

  3. I have swapped to direct sowing in the garden, and don't use pots much any more. This is especially good for things like corn and beans, which don't like being transplanted, and do like being planted into warm soil. I plant tomatoes in the middle of the second month of spring, and corn and beans in the last month of spring, and every month until the second month of summer. If it is too cold for direct sowing, you can try this method.
    I think your spending is quite reasonable for the size of your family, and clearly, the project is making you (and us) think about issues, like where our clothes come from.. children's clothes - always a big spend item at our house...
    I do try to spend ethically where I can, but as you say, not a lot of choice.

    1. Thanks Jo. I am wishing that I had stuck with direct sowing, because I have run out of space now they have grown and I keep moving pots in and out. Plus it hailed the last 2 days, so the leaves have holes and some have shrivelled round the edges. I kept them inside today, but the next dry day they are getting planted. Good link. Maybe I'll try making some cloches :)