Not All That Glitters is Green…

It’s that time of year where we like to add a bit of sparkle to our lives. Out come the sequins, on goes the glitter. Glitzy crafts come home from nursery, shedding a shiny trail.

It feels like glitter is particularly on trend at the moment, with glitter body art and hairstyles, glitter tattoos, and even glitter beards around, but there is evidence that people have used sparkling substances since prehistoric times. As long as 30,000 years ago, cave artists used powdered mica flakes to enhance their artwork. Ancient Egyptians used make-up from iridescent beetle wings and powdered malachite for a bit of extra glitz. More recently, 19th century Christmas ornaments were decorated using German glass glitter made from ground silvered glass.

It may seem like harmless fun, but modern glitter is plastic. As anyone who has tried it knows, a little goes a long way, and it will turn up in unexpected places for weeks. Some people even refer to it as the herpes of the craft world and it’s not hard to understand why. It is estimated that between 1989-2009 humans used four and a half million kilograms of glitter. I wonder where it’s all gone? Perhaps, somewhere deep in the ocean, there’s a tiny glimmering flake that coated my eyelid on NYE 1999.

Ravers of a certain age may remember the infamous Sussex dancefloor disaster, where an unfortunate party-goer accidentally snorted a pot of glitter and ended up in A&E in a critical condition. He survived, but I imagine he felt pretty sheepish telling his parents why he had to go to hospital.

If you need any more persuasion on why glitter is bad, this article by Daniel Ross on the EcoWatch website gives a pretty detailed picture.

Awareness of microplastic pollution is growing following the successful campaign to ban microbeads in cosmetics. One chain of nurseries in the UK has just banned the use of glitter and is advocating using lentils and rice in craft activities instead, but this seems like a rather dull replacement. That home-made Christmas card for Granny won’t look quite so seasonal when it’s coated with organic pulses. Here are a few shinier suggestions for adding some eco-friendly festive sparkle:

EcoStardust and EcoGlitterFun sell biodegradable glitter made from plant-based cellulose film. With prices from around £3.50 for 3g it’s pricier than plastic glitter, but I would argue that it isn’t too expensive, it’s more that plastic glitter is too cheap.

Why not try using edible glitter for crafts rather than baking? Following the 2012 Celebrity Bake Off ‘Glittergate’ scandal, when a contestant was found to be using undigestible ‘non-toxic’ plastic glitter sold by a catering company, the FSA set new guidelines for edible glitter. They are now usually made from a mixture of gum arabic and food colourings. I generally try to avoid eating that sort of thing, but would happily sprinkle some on a home-made greetings card. From £2.50 for 5g from Hobbycraft it’s a more economical option. You could even try making your own! (although as a vegetarian I don’t fancy the gelatine-based option, yick!)

Another crafty way to add a bit of sparkle to your creations is by ‘upcycling’ packaging. The shiny inner wrappers on Seed & Bean‘s delicious chocolate bars are made from eucalyptus based biodegradable film. Cut it into tiny strips and sprinkle away to your hearts content.

Basically, the only excuse for using plastic-based glitter is to stop a nuclear apocalypse.

How? In the New Scientist (letters page 21/10/17) Luce Gilmore explains how US and Russian researchers developed a tamper-proof seal to prevent covert upgrading of nuclear warheads. “The procedure was simply to glue the access panels shut with transparent epoxy resin, mixed with a pinch of glitter, in a deliberately messy blob. Once cured the random pattern was photographed under laser illumination. It was deemed impossible to upgrade a warhead and then recreate the pattern precisely…”







A Stylish Slipper?

As the days turn colder, the wooden floors in our Victorian house become distinctly draughty. I’ve just mended my Shepherd of Sweden sheepskin slippers, but my man’s feet are getting chilly so I’ve been on a hunt to find him some stylish slippers. It’s pretty hard to find slippers that are attractive, and when you are buying footwear for a loved one, the last thing you want is to make them look fusty and old.

The top results in a quick image search reveal some rather dubious tastes. Novelty slippers abound. If you fancy warming your toes in a real-life representation of the ‘poop’ emoji, or want to sink your feet into Homer Simpson’s mouth then you are in luck. Maybe you’d prefer to ‘add some magic to your morning’ with some light-up unicorn slippers? All these things are possible, but will not be happening in our household.

During my research on microplastic pollution caused by teabags (see this post for more) I found an article about whether it’s OK to add lint to compost heaps (it’s not advised due to microplasics from synthetic textiles). I’d never really considered this issue, and always thought that people with a ‘natural-fibres-only’ mentality to be a bit extreme—the sort of hessian-loving hippy who eats hemp seeds by the bucket-load and drinks Barleycup. But now I get it. Synthetic fibres are plastic, and when your clothing is washed, they shed microfibres which cause the ‘teeny-tiny’ plastic pollution that is damaging the environment and entering our food chain. With this in mind, I’ve been on the lookout for a pair of slippers that is 100% natural.

Haflinger are a German company who only work with natural materials such as felt, boiled wool and cork. They have a huge range—their felt clogs are gorgeous, but I just didn’t think my partner would like the style. I chose a pair of their Alaska slippers from Shoegarden, which were good quality, but I wasn’t happy with the look and returned them for a refund. After also trying some slipper socks from Falke (which annoyingly contain 30% polyamide) I finally decided it was time to show the slipper shortlist to Joe. He settled on some purple beauties from Glerups, which I ordered through Manchester menswear legends Oi Polloi. Glerups promise high animal welfare standards for their wool, and use vegetable-tanned calfskin for the soles. They also offer a natural rubber sole for some of their styles.

Whether sheepskin, wool and leather can be considered ‘ethical’ is another question. The conundrum of considerations with environment and animal welfare is tricky. I’ve got many vegan friends and would be super interested to know whether anyone has found an environmentally friendly vegan slipper option.

When my sheepskin slippers have finally bitten the dust, I’m dreaming of a pair of these Glerups slipper boots with a rubber sole.

Cosy feet all round!




A Change of Chocolate

cacao beans and pods

I’ve got a confession to make: Chocolate is an area where I sometimes let my standards slip a little in order to get a fix.

Despite having spent nearly a year researching the terrible standards in cacao production, I have been known to nibble a bit of low grade chocolate.

I’ve been aware for years that Green and Blacks are owned by Kraft, but have deliberately kept my blinkers on, as they are the ‘least-worst’ option at our local late-night convenience store. Pukka Herbs’ sale to Unilever has made me reconsider whether a company can remain ethical whilst being owned by a super-huge multinational corporation. When I saw the news that Green and Blacks were launching a new range of non-organic products, and dropping Fairtrade certification on many of their products, I realised it was time to turn my chocolatey attentions elsewhere.

It’s been a terrible burden, but I’ve had to try out several alternatives in the name of research. They’ve got to be organic and Fairtrade (or small batch/single origin cacao). Here are a few recommendations:

  • When I needed a dark chocolate hit to keep me awake to watch a late night showing of Bladerunner 2049 I tried out The Chicken Shed‘s dark and fudgey orange bar, sweetened with tropical honey, which I picked up at the Organic Deli in Oxford.
  • Seed and Bean do a wide range of interesting flavours. They tend toward super-dark, but there are a few milky options too. Their tangerine milk chocolate is the closest thing to a full bar of orange-smartie inners that I’ve ever tasted.
  • Ombar’s Coco Mylk buttons are a tasty little treat that’s free from dairy and refined sugar. They are working towards Fairtrade certification.
  • Traidcraft and Equal Exchange are both good, solid alternatives for a big bar to share… My local health food shop has been offering tasters this week: Yum!
  • For a deluxe vegan treat, it’s hard to beat Booja Booja.

So, time to raise the bar (yes, pun intended) and put my chocolate money where my mouth is.

Happy Chocolate Week everyone!





A Pukka Alternative

herbal teaImagine you work for a friendly ethical herb business, but it is owned by a boss who was paid well over 10 million pounds last year… What if your boss also owns a portfolio of businesses that practice animal testing, promote genetic modification and manufacture harmful chemical cleaning products… Could you still call your business ‘ethical’?

When the news broke that Pukka Teas sold out to Unilever last month, their ratings with Ethical Consumer dropped from a high scoring 13.5 to 4.5, in line with their new ‘parent’ company.

Pukka Teas launched in 2001, when I was working at Bath healthfood institution Harvest. Pukka co-founder Sebastian Pole would visit our shop to hold tastings. I was an early convert: their spicy blends won my tastebuds, and since then our herbal tea shelf has mostly been a decorative row of their pretty, patterned boxes.

Sebastian Pole says of the sale: “Choosing Unilever came down to two fundamentals: scale and sustainability. It is a leader in social and environmental change and it wholeheartedly embraces Pukka’s beliefs. So, there’s a meeting of values. Pukka will remain 100% organic and a champion for fair trading through pioneering schemes like Fair for Life, and continue to donate 1% of its sales to global environmental charities. With Unilever, we have new levels of reach and opportunity.”

However, Ethical Consumer’s research has highlighted these key points:

  • While Unilever scores a best policy rating for palm oil, it has been accused of using suppliers that contribute to deforestation in South East Asia and Africa
  • The company is a proponent of GM technologies and invests heavily in research and promotion of them
  • Unilever CEO Paul Polman was paid £10,403,000 in 2016, an amount that Ethical Consumer deemed excessive
  • The company has subsidiaries in a number of oppressive regimes including Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Israel
  • The company still tests on animals
  • The company also scores Ethical Consumer’s worst ratings for its cocoa supply chain policy and likely use of tax avoidance strategies

So, many customers and stockists are starting a boycott. With nearly 400 comments on the Pukka Herbs Facebook announcement, it seems that there’s a lot of strong feelings flying around. Their top customer review reads: “Bye bye Pukka – I have bought your products for years but the sellout news has changed all that. You’ve sold out, shame on you….” My nearest health food shops have both decided to drop Pukka, and I’m sure others across the country will be clearing their stocks.

So, there’s been a second tea revolution in our house. Armed with my trusty in-cup infuser, I’ve stocked up on loose licorice root chips, cinnamon bark, chamomile flowers and spearmint. Whenever I fancy a herbal brew, I can pick-and-mix like an ancient apothecary. Neals Yard and Harvest stock a wide range of loose herbs, so if you bring your own jar you can have a packaging-free herbal tea experience. It should even work out cheaper than buying teabags!

Another brand owned by Unilever is Marmite. I’m firmly in the ‘Love It’ camp and need to change my ways. Luckily Essential Trading make Vitam-R Yeast Extract, which is a perfect alternative—there’s even an organic version.

Unilever claim to be present in 98% of households in the UK. With their brands including PG Tips, Hellmans, Flora, Magnum, Vaseline, Lynx, Persil, and Dove soap I’m not surprised. Time to check your cupboards, and find some ethical alternatives!




The Compost Catastrophe or A Teeny Tiny Storm in a Teacup

Teacup under a storm cloud, with a crossed out recyclingFancy a cuppa? Do you take milk and sugar? How about a sprinkling of microplastic particles? When I recently heard that some teabags contain plastic, I thought to myself ‘not mine — ​I only buy Fairtrade, organic, unbleached paper teabags ‘. So, when our local health food shop told me that the Clipper brand teabags we’ve drunk for years contain a plastic layer, I just didn’t want to believe it. After studying the box carefully and finding no mention of plastic, I headed straight to the Clipper website to find out some facts.

Clipper are very keen to shout about their many ethical credentials, but it took a bit of searching to confirm the bad news. Hidden in the Frequently Asked Questions section under ‘Can Clipper Tea Bags Be Composted?’ is the awful truth: “In our opinion the tea bag paper we use is suitable for home composting. Square “pillow” bags do have a very thin layer of polypropylene plastic to enable the bags to be sealed, but in your compost bin this will break down into teeny tiny pieces.”

Excuse me, WTF? I do not want polypropylene in my teacup and I certainly do not want ‘teeny tiny’ pieces of plastic in my compost heap.

I called Clipper, who explained helpfully that some of their bags made with a string and tag system are plastic free, but were unable to say where I could buy them. When queried about what research they used to justify their composting advice, they have gone curiously quiet (despite a friendly reminder).

The environmental pollution caused by this irresponsible advice is potentially catastrophic. As well as tens of thousands of well-meaning granola-crunching hippies carefully composting their fairtrade teabags, council run food waste composting schemes encourage householders to compost their bags. With 165 million cups of tea drunk in Britain a day, that’s a whole heap of ‘teeny tiny’ pieces of plastic on their way into ​our soil and water​.

Although a few companies such as Hampstead Teas offer Fairtrade, organic black tea in bags made with the string and tag system, switching to loose leaf seems like the best option. The Ethical Consumer do a handy guide to the best teas which you can find here.

If you’re looking for a pot that isn’t too chintzy, ‘Stump’ tea-pots are a modern style classic, available in a range of zingy colours. You can even use the infuser directly into a mug. In-cup infusers are a good solution for our household, where tea preferences differ. I popped into our local loose leaf emporium who do a good range of infusers. Their ‘Strainer With a Handle’ is a perfect fit.

Well, that’s me sorted, but it is still important to raise awareness of this hidden issue to help make changes happen on a bigger level.

It seems a little rum that the Soil Association award their trusted certification symbol to teabags containing plastic. I’ve been reading through their policy documents and as it says in the ‘standards’ that certified products ‘… have been made to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards’ but this simply isn’t true for teabags made with polypropolene. Teabags can be made without plastics so that would surely count as a higher standard. Section 41.6.8 of their August 2016 Standards document states “To minimise the direct and indirect environmental impacts of your packaging during its life cycle, you must; minimise the amount of material used; maximise the amount of material that can be reused or recycled; and use materials with recycled content where possible.” Surely where teabags can be made using a string-and-tag system, this would mean that they should be in order to meet the requirements for organic certification.

I contacted the Waste Resources Action Programme charity WRAP  (who run the nationwide Love Food, Hate Waste and Recycle Now campaigns) to ask about their policy on composting teabags containing plastic and they recommended contacting your tea company with any queries directly. With even Garden Organic advising composting teabags it seems like we’ve got a long way to go until the problem is solved.

So please dust off your teapots, make yourself a brew, and get to work: